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Toll of Powerhouse fire raised to 24 homes

Flames driven by winds also destroyed 29 outbuildings. Firefighters expect to have the blaze fully surrounded by Monday.

June 06, 2013|By Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times

Authorities on Thursday significantly increased the number of homes destroyed by the Powerhouse fire to 24, more than double the previous estimate.

Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Anthony Akins attributed the rise in damage to a survey by ground crews that were able to explore the burn area more fully mid-week. All 24 of the destroyed homes were in or around Lake Hughes. Atkins said the newly discovered destruction was in a nearby canyon.

The fire also claimed 29 outbuildings when erratic winds drove the flames toward the hamlets of Lake Hughes and Elizabeth Lake and surrounding areas overnight Saturday. Authorities said three homes and one outbuilding were damaged by the stubborn blaze in the eastern part of the Angeles National Forest.

Elizabeth Lake was largely spared, although residents of both communities were forced to evacuate as flames approached.

By Thursday, aided by cooler temperatures and calmer winds, firefighters had contained 83% of the wildfire. They expected to be able to fully surround the fire by Monday.

Although some of the roads in the area remained closed, the U.S. Forest Service said the remaining evacuation orders were lifted Thursday for the last of those who fled their homes over the weekend.

For some, there was no home to return to.

They included single mother Vivian Buentiempo-Johnson and her son, Ravi Johnson, 12, whose hilltop house on Newview Drive burned to the ground. The family was not at home when the fire came through, but Buentiempo-Johnson said she had been monitoring developments online from her job in Los Angeles.

"At a certain point, you just have to let go of any sort of fear and anxiety because you know whatever is going to happen is going to happen," Buentiempo-Johnson said.

Neighbor Allaire Koslo, whose home was spared, broke the news to her friend by phone Sunday. "She was sobbing, 'Viv, it's gone,' " Buentiempo-Johnson said. And then Koslo invited the family to stay with her.

"She lost everything," Koslo said Thursday. "I think she's in shock but she is strong and she has a positive attitude."

And Ravi, a sixth-grader, was back in class at the local school, where counselors were helping the students cope with what had happened in their tight-knit, usually tranquil communities.

"It's good for them to be back in school, to be with their peers," said Koslo, who volunteers at the school.

Joe Biviano, a test pilot for Lockheed Martin, didn't need to be told that his four-bedroom house was gone. He and his wife fled their home of 15 years just ahead of the flames, taking some documents and other important items "but not enough."

On Sunday, with the roads still closed, Biviano flew his Piper Comanche over the site and saw nothing but charred ruins where the house had stood.

"It was terrible," Biviano said, "but not as terrible as actually going to the site. It's something you can't prepare for, really."

Since then, Biviano and his wife, Zanya, have been "taking things 12 hours at a time," sifting through the rubble and staying with friends while they try to decide what to do next.

Still, Biviano sees "a lot of blessings in this." Neighbors have come by to help the couple look for salvageable items, countless friends have offered lodging and colleagues have showered the couple with gift cards that they have used to replace clothing and other essentials.

Although her house was lost, Buentiempo-Johnson credits firefighters for "an amazing job" in saving many others. And she said she was "extremely grateful" for all the help that she and Ravi have received. "I feel really supported and well taken care of. I know it's going to be fine," she said.

The fire began in mid-afternoon on May 30, near a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power station. It peaked over the weekend when, fanned by triple-digit temperatures and wind gusts as strong as 45 mph, the fire forced residents from their homes. Some took refuge at an evacuation center set up by the American Red Cross at a park in nearby Palmdale.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. The cost to fight it is estimated at $16 million, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

jean.merl@latimes.com

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