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Twin blazes sweep Valley slopes

One man dies and 49 structures burn down. The fire chief sees 'a design for disaster.'

October 14, 2008|Julie Cart, and Ari B. Bloomekatz and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers
  • A 3,200-acre wildfire whipped by intense winds has forced the closure of the 210 Foothill Freeway in both directions between the 118 Freeway and Interstate 5.
A 3,200-acre wildfire whipped by intense winds has forced the closure of… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

With treacherous Santa Ana winds as their bellows, twin wildfires raced through populated canyons, forests and brushlands on the northern fringes of the San Fernando Valley, claiming at least one life and 49 structures, and prompting authorities to suggest a hair-raising, worst-case scenario -- that one of the blazes, which began near Porter Ranch, could burn all the way to the Pacific Ocean about 15 miles away.

"This fire has the potential to move from where it is now . . . perhaps as far as Pacific Coast Highway," Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman said Monday afternoon as he assessed what he called "a design for disaster." Freeman said winds of up to 60 mph were expected to push the fire down through canyons at least through this morning.

More than 800 city, county and state firefighters battled the two blazes, which shut down major portions of the 210 and 118 freeways and filled the horizon with a thick curtain of smoke, white at the edges but fading from red to black near the core. The scene took on an apocalyptic cast as traffic ground to a standstill and blasts of wind sent shudders through cars and buildings, bending trees, snapping limbs and sending trash cans clattering on empty, smoke-darkened blocks.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 15, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Porter Ranch fire: A caption accompanying a photo of the Porter Ranch fire in Tuesday's Section A misspelled the name of the mountain where the Sesnon fire started Monday morning. It started on Oat Mountain, not Oak Mountain.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, warning residents that the fickle winds made the fires especially dangerous and unpredictable. "The state is coordinating with federal and local officials to ensure that firefighters have the resources they need, but with such a serious situation on our hands, we need residents to take every precaution to remain safe during this dangerous and difficult time," he said in a written statement.

The causes of the fires had not been determined.

The winds were so strong that Freeman said embers were being blown as far as a quarter mile, and flames stretched up to 80 feet. Flames longer than 8 feet are considered virtually insurmountable, and Los Angeles County prohibits hand crews from approaching flames longer than 4 feet, according to Drew Smith, a county fire behaviorist.

In addition to their ground attack, firefighters were trying to douse the blazes by helicopter and Super Scooper air tankers, and were considering using the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention's DC-10 firefighting aircraft.

Squinting into a setting sun during a briefing at the command center for the fire at Porter Ranch, designated the Sesnon fire, Freeman sounded resigned to yet another disastrous siege in a region that has lost thousands of homes to fire over the last five years.

"Once Mother Nature steps in, there's not a lot you can do," he said.

By late in the day, the fire that began near Lake View Terrace early Sunday morning, which was dubbed the Marek fire, had burned 4,726 acres and destroyed 30 of 55 mobile homes at the Sky Terrace Mobile Lodge, reducing them to unrecognizable piles of ash amid pools of molten metal. It was less than 5% contained Monday night. The fire killed one homeless man and his dog, authorities said without elaborating.

L.A. County Fire Capt. Roland Sprewell said the fire remained dangerous, with winds of up to 80 mph forecast for early today. "We are anticipating it's going to get down and dirty, as it did this morning," he said.

The Porter Ranch blaze, began about 10:30 a.m. Monday on Oat Mountain, a 3,700-foot peak north of the 118 Freeway near Chatsworth, and had burned more than 5,000 acres by nightfall. There was no containment as of Monday night. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said it had destroyed at least 19 structures.

The California Highway Patrol said it had not determined whether the fire was to blame for a traffic fatality that occurred on the westbound 118 near DeSoto Avenue. However, the Los Angeles County coroner's office said the accident was apparently caused by reduced visibility from smoke.

One firefighter suffered an unspecified eye injury at the Porter Ranch fire, according to Steve Kaufman, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.

At least 10 schools were closed Monday, and classes were canceled at Cal State Northridge.

Moving as fast as they did, on a day otherwise marked by cool temperatures and crystal clear skies, the fires caught many people off guard.

"It happened so quickly," said Annette Held, who was forced to evacuate her Porter Ranch home. "All of a sudden flames just headed down the hill, and it became pitch black and impossible to breathe."

Held, an educational consultant, said she was torn at first because she didn't want to leave her next-door neighbor, who was refusing to go. But police ultimately said they would break down the neighbor's door if necessary to get her out, Held said, and that was all the convincing she needed.

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