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Residents remain evacuated as Powerhouse fire spreads to 25,000 acres

Blaze nearly tripled in size over 12 hours, routing about 2,800 from Lake Hughes and Elizabeth Lake. Six homes were lost.

June 02, 2013|By Ruben Vives, Louis Sahagun and Jason Song, Los Angeles Times

Tony Liparote and his family have lived in Elizabeth Lake for 22 years. They'd always counted themselves lucky that brush fires had never chased them from their home.

But that changed Saturday night, when triple-digit temperatures and erratic winds sent the Powerhouse fire careening into Elizabeth Lake and Lake Hughes, two small towns west of Palmdale in northern Los Angeles County.

At 9 p.m. they packed some belongings after a sheriff's deputy warned residents of a possible evacuation. "At 10:55, we thought we were OK. At 11, we saw the flames come over the ridge and we left," said Liparote, 57, a supervisor at an aerospace firm. "It was that fast."

PHOTOS: Powerhouse fire

The Liparotes found themselves at the center of an epic battle Saturday night and early Sunday morning, as the fire exploded. The weather conditions produced a chimney effect, in which the winds pulled the flames rapidly through the canyons. Over a 12-hour period, the blaze nearly tripled in size. Firefighters were caught off guard and frantically battled to save the towns, where about 2,800 people were evacuated.

Aided by water-dropping helicopters authorized to fly at night, fire crews on the ground defended structures one by one. Fire personnel from throughout the region streamed into the high desert throughout the night, eventually totalling 2,100.

By sunrise, six structures had been lost but both towns largely survived.

MAP: Evacuation areas, road closures and more

Then, after the weather caused such havoc the night before, on Sunday temperatures cooled and the fire slightly slowed. By afternoon, it had burned 25,000 acres, but evacuations remained in effect, with more possible in the nearby community of Green Valley.

By early evening, the winds had kicked up again and flames from the massive fire leaped from the mountains and raced across the drought-parched high desert plains on the western edge of Lancaster. Helicopters swooped low over the sparsely populated flatlands, bombing hot spots with water.

But Jesse Knox, division supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service, remained optimistic about the effort as temperatures continued to drop. "We expect this fire to lay down" Sunday night, he said. "We are trying to get around it and hem it in."

The situation was much different Saturday night. Seemingly out of nowhere, the fire cast an eerie glow over the region's normally tranquil communities, while ash rained onto streets and houses. Power outages added to residents' confusion and fear.

Nicole Young, 56, of Elizabeth Lake recalled losing electrical power in her home overlooking the water, then having it lighted by the orange glow from flames devouring her 60-foot cottonwoods. "I just laid down on the couch by the living room window and cried," said the motorcycle shop manager. "It was that scary."

"We weren't worrying about it — we thought it was being contained," said Nicoleta Trifa, 39, of Lake Hughes, who had been spending Saturday evening at the home she shares with friend Sheridan Harris.

At 8 p.m., everything changed.

"The next thing you know, there are helicopters and sheriffs everywhere and [Trifa's] in the car, screaming at me to come on," Harris, 52, recalled after the two fled their home.

Not everyone left. Paul Koslo, 70, his wife, Allaire, 50, and daughter Chloe, 15, decided to fight for the Lake Hughes home they have spent 10 years building. On Sunday, as helicopters descended on the lake to pump water for firefighting, Koslo used a small tractor to build a mound of dirt around the house "just in case the fire tries to go over," he said. Some of their neighbors lost their homes.

On Saturday officials made the unusual call to keep several water-dropping aircraft operating all night despite the dangerous conditions.

Noting that most regions ground aircraft at night, L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby told a news conference Sunday that the aircraft were important in saving houses and other buildings.

"I think this made a significant difference," Osby said.

One of the most dramatic battles of the fire occurred Saturday night across the street from county Fire Department Station 18 in Lake Hughes, as firefighters managed to save the Painted Turtle, a camp operated by the Paul Newman Foundation for children with serious medical conditions.

County fire engineer Rich Wade first spotted flames boiling over a ridge, headed for the camp, about 4 p.m. Coming from the direction of Green Valley, the flames looked "like a huge blowtorch tossing out embers that were igniting fires a half a mile ahead," he said.

The 150-acre camp — a collection of classrooms, cabins, an auditorium and recreational facilities — was surrounded by dense brush that had not burned in decades, said Wade, 56, who has spent most of his life in the area.

Yet because the winds had been blowing toward the south for much of the day, he said, firefighters "had left this whole north end alone. There was no staff or strategy in place."

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