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In a flash, flames get a jump on everybody

For both firefighters and residents, there was little warning that the Sesnon blaze would move so rapidly.

October 14, 2008|Joe Mozingo, Louis Sahagun and Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writers

It was a firefighters' nightmare: erratic winds driving flames so fast there was no time to react. Blazes jumping freeways and racing up canyons. Hopscotching embers leaving behind a patchwork quilt of burned homes and blackened cars.

"Everything just came together to make it the worst possible thing," Los Angeles County Fire Chief Mike Freeman said Monday of the Sesnon fire, which roared through hillside neighborhoods in Chatsworth and Porter Ranch.

For people in the fire's unpredictable path, there was little warning.

"This is something I've never seen," said Bill Byers, 59, who lives in the Twin Lakes neighborhood in unincorporated Chatsworth, where at least eight homes burned to the ground. "The fire roared through in less than a minute."

Firefighters like to herd fire. They like to get ahead of it and make a stand. But Monday, they often found themselves chasing the flames instead. "Embers are driving spot fires, maybe four blocks away. It's extremely frustrating," Freeman said late in the afternoon.

In some cases, firetrucks and police cruisers arrived to find residents looking on as flames licked shrubs in their backyards.

Leon Chernosk, 74, said he was watching fire coverage on television. If the flames reached his neighborhood, he figured, it wouldn't be for hours. Then he looked northeast, and the smoke was so thick he couldn't see the mountains. He hopped in his car and rushed down the hill. A minute later, he changed his mind and raced back to his Mayan Drive home to retrieve pictures.

When he pulled up to the Cape Cod-style house where he had lived for two decades, the two houses next to his were burning. He grabbed a hose to put out a fire on his deck.

"I couldn't see; my eyes were burning," Chernosk said. The heat scorched his skin. His neighbor's butane tank exploded. It was time to go. When he came back, after the fires died down, his home had been reduced to ashes.

"Everything I own, 20 years of my stuff, all my pictures and photos, all burned to the ground," Chernosk said. "It's just a pile of dust."

Byers and his neighbors in Twin Lakes were also taken unawares. They had been keeping a wary eye on the news as smoke from nearby Porter Ranch cast a pall over the neighborhood. Then, within just a few minutes, billows of smoke turned the daytime sky black.

By the time Byers noticed and stepped outside, three homes up the hill were burning. So was his deck.

The fire moved so fast that even the firefighters took cover.

"It was coming through so hard, we had to pull back," Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Jeff Sims said.

After helping a friend evacuate, Dwayne Lewis, 43, assisted a firefighter with a heavy hose being used to douse a hot spot in the Twin Lakes neighborhood. When it got too dangerous, Lewis was ordered into his truck. But it was too late to escape. He watched the house next to him burst into flames. The fire then roared over the top of his truck, coming so close he could feel the pulsing heat. "I race motorcycles, and this was ugly," Lewis said.

In the smoky Santa Susana foothills a couple of miles northeast, despite an evacuation edict, the neighbors of the gated community in the 19700 block of Kilfinan Street in Porter Ranch made a pact, promising one another: "I won't leave until you leave."

Tony Soliven, a 40-year-old computer technician, watered shrubs while his wife packed the car with their most precious belongings.

At 12:30 p.m., fire swept over the ridge behind their homes, fueled by intense south and southwesterly winds that snapped tree limbs and sent trash cans tumbling down the street.

The winds drove the blaze up against a retaining wall separating the $800,000 homes from burning brush on the mountainside to the north.

"Not yet," Soliven said, continuing to douse the backyard despite the approaching smoke.

Flames engulfed manzanita and oak trees less than 300 yards away. Sirens blared from several directions.

A neighbor from across the street dashed over, holding a handkerchief over her face. Her car was parked facing the street, ready to leave.

"Are you staying?" she asked Soliven. He looked up and said, "Yeah, we're not leaving yet." As the neighbor headed back home, she said, "If you leave, I'm leaving, so let me know."

A few doors down, L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy Raffi Maronian, 36, a resident, his badge hanging on a lanyard around his neck, decided to alert neighbors who might not be aware of the conditions.

Maronian ran across the street and banged on a door: "The fire is right behind us. Are you ready?"

The neighbor came out to look. "Oh my god, it's here!" she shouted.

Moments later, police cruisers and fire department authorities began driving down the street ordering evacuation.

"It's time," Soliven said. "I'm leaving."

With black ash swirling on the street and visibility down to a few yards, garage doors opened almost in unison and vehicles began streaming out of the gated entryway.


Times staff writer Julie Cart contributed to this story.

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