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Arson is suspected as five fires start in Griffith Park

The blazes started within a two-hour period. By nightfall, 300 firefighters had them 60% contained.

August 17, 2008|Jia-Rui Chong and Jason Song | Times Staff Writers

Three hundred firefighters battled five brush fires that broke out Saturday afternoon in Griffith Park, causing officials to evacuate Travel Town and raising questions about the ignition of so many blazes in less than two hours, authorities said.

Arson investigators were on the scene investigating the cause of the fires, Deputy Fire Chief Mario Rueda said.

"There's no lightning, so we can rule that one out," said Los Angeles Fire Department spokeswoman d'Lisa Davies.

"Fires in the park don't start for natural reasons," Rueda said, noting that past fires there had tended to be caused by humans, accidentally or intentionally.

The first fire was reported about 2 p.m., and four more were spotted in the next hour and forty-five minutes, fire officials said.

By 8 p.m. Saturday, the fires were about 60% contained and had burned about 50 acres. At that point, there were no active flames and department officials said they expected the fires to be contained fully by noon Monday.

"We'll be working well into the evening," Rueda said.

L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who was reached by cellphone in Griffith Park, said law enforcement and fire officials at the scene indicated to him that arson was suspected.

"It shows great disrespect for nature that someone would start a fire," he said.

Saturday's fires followed two others in the northern part of Griffith Park in the past three weeks. The area burning near Travel Town was not involved in the large fire last summer.

Park rangers called the city Fire Department shortly after 2 p.m. to report the first fire, which by then had burned about five acres of heavy brush, Davies said.

Brad Slosar, a 43-year-old volunteer at Travel Town, said he was working in the train shed about 2:10 p.m. when he noticed 20-foot-high flames on a ridge to the northwest.

"You walked out the door and you could just hear it crackling," Slosar said.

Within minutes, fire and police officials were on the scene and began evacuating busloads of tourists, many of whom had just pulled up, Slosar said.

"Everything was very orderly," he said. "It was very well done."

The Fire Department said the second blaze, on the opposite side of the ridge, and a third fire about a mile and a half east of Travel Town, were spotted by helicopters dropping water on the fires about 2:45 p.m., Davies said.

Another helicopter spotted a fourth fire about an hour later in an inaccessible canyon, Davies said.

Ground crews spotted the fifth fire about 3:47 p.m. and directed helicopters there.

Davies said firefighters from three agencies, including the Glendale and Los Angeles County fire departments, were helping to battle the blazes. In addition, four water-dropping helicopters were being used at the scene.

No injuries have been reported.

Officials initially said the California Highway Patrol was in the process of shutting down the eastbound and westbound ramps to Zoo Drive from the Ventura Freeway. Later, authorities said they kept those ramps open but shut down a portion of Zoo Drive between Forest Lawn Drive and the Los Angeles Zoo.

LaBonge said one of the fires was near a heavily used equestrian trail, popular with riders coming from Glendale and Burbank. The area also has some hiking trails used by the Sierra Club.

"The trails and fire roads will still be open, but there are a couple very bad scars on the mountain now, to go with the previous fires that have taken place," LaBonge said.

The last brush fire in the park was on Aug. 4. That blaze burned three acres in the northeast corner near the Mineral Wells Trail before being brought under control in an hour and a half.

On July 28, a fast-moving wildfire burned through 25 acres of heavy brush, causing the evacuation of thousands of people from the Los Angeles Zoo and briefly threatening a breeding center for endangered California condors.

Griffith Park suffered its worst fire in three decades in 2007, when 1,200 acres, or one-quarter of the park, were scorched, and popular hiking areas were destroyed.

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jia-rui.chong@latimes.com

jason.song@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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