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Los Angeles wildfire spreads to 4,600 acres, forcing evacuations in San Fernando Valley

"That fire, wind got behind it; it was a wind driven fire," a Los Angeles fire official said. "We have lost some homes."
Posted at 6:51 AM, Oct 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-11 10:40:35-04

A wind-whipped wildfire in the San Fernando Valley grew to over 4,600 acres overnight, hours after a blaze in neighboring Riverside County tore through a mobile home park.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered in the San Fernando Valley, parts of major highways were shut down and at least 10 schools were closed Friday.

In the earlier blaze Thursday, 74 structures were destroyed and 16 others were damaged in Calimesa in Riverside County, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, officials said.

Hours later, the fire in Los Angeles started in Sylmar in the San Fernando Valley north of downtown. The Los Angeles Fire Department said the so-called Saddleridge Brush Fire grew from 60 acres to over 4,000 acres.

By early Friday morning, large swaths of the valley that have about 12,700 homes were ordered to evacuate, including the affluent Porter Ranch neighborhood and parts of Sylmar. About 100,000 people live in the areas under mandatory evacuation, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"That fire, wind got behind it; it was a wind-driven fire," said Al Poirier, chief deputy for emergency operations for the fire department. "We have lost some homes."

The wildfire was zero-percent contained early Friday and has destroyed at least one commercial building. Aerial video broadcast on television also showed a home burning.

It also closed major highways, including the 210 freeway in both directions and a truck route on the 5 freeway.

Christie Lugo Leigh, a resident who evacuated, told KTLA in a phone interview that “the glow that surrounded us was so bright orange, it looked like it was in our back yard." Leigh said she got her daughter and dog and not much else and fled.

Nearly 300 children living at a juvenile hall were among those evacuated, NBC Los Angeles reported.

Thursday's fires came as so-called Santa Ana winds, which blow down from mountains in the northern part of the state into the south, began gusting strongly Thursday afternoon. Maximum winds of 46 mph were recorded in Sylmar on Thursday night, the National Weather Service said.

Power companies on Thursday began expanding fire-prevention blackouts to the southern part of the state, but neither of the blazes were said to have been caused by power lines. The fire in Calimesa was caused by a trash truck that dumped a load of burning trash that spread into vegetation, officials said.

In Ventura County, the so-called Wendy Fire burned 90 acres near Newbury Park but was moving away from homes, and there were no injuries and no structures lost, according to the Ventura County Fire Department. It was 25 percent contained.

Forecasters had predicted strong winds in the north would create Santa Ana conditions in the south on Wednesday and Thursday. Southern California Edison said Thursday night that it had begun shutting off power to about 45,000 people across its service area.

SCE said that it hadn't cut off power to Calimesa but that parts of the community were in an area where such blackouts might be necessary this week.

In Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric said Thursday night that power had been restored to more than half of the 738,000 customers impacted by the “public safety power shutoff.”

An account can be a single-family home or a large business, and generally represents about 2½ people. Under that estimation, the 312,000 customers PG&E said remained without power represents around 780,000 people.

PG&E has said it could be several days before all power is restored because all 24,700 miles of distribution lines and 2,443 miles of transmission line must be visually inspected before it can turn the power back on — a process that can't get widely underway until the threatening fire conditions have passed.

Many Californians, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, have harshly criticized PG&E for the blackouts.

"They're in bankruptcy because of their terrible management going back decades," Newsom said Wednesday. "They created these conditions."

PG&E's energy unit declared the largest utility bankruptcy in U.S. history in January as it faced massive liabilities from its role in several highly destructive fires that burned hundreds of thousands of acres of Northern California in 2017 and 2018. One of them, the Camp Fire, killed 86 people in Butte County.

The governor doubled down on Thursday, calling the blackouts "unacceptable" at a news conference at the state emergency operations center in Mather.

"If they had de-energized this time last year and a year ago, a lot of people would be alive," he said. "A lot of people's lives were lost because they did not do the right thing."

PG&E told NBC News this week that because the blackouts are a planned safety measure, customers wouldn't be reimbursed for lost business, housing alternatives or spoiled food and medicines. Newsom said that he thought customers should be compensated and that he was in discussions with the company.

At PG&E's daily update on Thursday evening, Chief Executive William Johnson declined to comment on Newsom's remark, but he apologized for what he called the company's failure to keep its customers in the loop.

Acknowledging that PG&E's website had crashed for more than a day, that its phone lines were frequently jammed and that some blackout maps might have been inaccurate, Johnson said, "To put it simply, we were not adequately prepared to support the situational event."

At the same time, he warned that because the goal was "zero spark," similar blackouts are likely in the future under similar weather conditions. When they do, he said, "we've got to get more surgical."