Winds dying as crews fight flames in Southern California

Posted at 8:25 AM, Oct 12, 2019

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Edwin Bernard, 73, is no stranger to flames that have frequently menaced his sunburnt corner of Los Angeles, but they never arrived as quickly or came as close to his home before.

Fire swept down the hill across the street and spit embers over his home of 30 years, sizzling through dry grass and igniting trees and bushes. He and his wife scrambled to go, leaving behind medication, photo albums and their four cats.

"It was a whole curtain of fire," Bernard said. "There was fire on all sides. We had to leave."

Bernard's home and the cats left inside survived - barely. His backyard was charred.

Bernard and his wife were among some 100,000 residents ordered out of their homes because of a wind-driven wildfire that broke out Thursday evening in the San Fernando Valley. It spread westward through tinder-dry brush in hilly subdivisions on the outskirts of the nation's second-largest city and was only 13% contained Friday night.

Fire officials said 13 buildings were destroyed, many probably homes. Another 18 were damaged. A middle-aged man who was near the fire went into cardiac arrest and died after apparently trying to fight the fire himself, authorities said.

Those under mandatory evacuation orders packed shelters. On Friday, police allowed some to return to their homes for five minutes to gather precious items.

They won't be allowed to return permanently until the danger had passed.

"It's not the fire itself but the danger of wind taking an ember, blowing it someplace, and seeing entire neighborhoods overnight get lit," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Friday.

Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas said he flew over the fire Friday and saw "hundreds, if not thousands of homes" with charred backyards where firefighters had just managed to halt the flames.

"Be patient with us," he urged evacuees. "We want to make sure you're safe."

About 450 police were deployed in the area, and Police Chief Michel Moore said there would be "no tolerance" for looters.

Smoke belching from the burning chaparral covered some neighborhoods in gray haze. Interstate 5, the main north-to-south corridor in the state, was shut down for much of the day, choking traffic until finally reopening.

The region has been on high alert as notoriously powerful Santa Ana winds brought dry desert air to a desiccated landscape that only needed a spark to erupt. Fire officials have warned that they expect more intense and devastating California wildfires due, in part, to climate change.

By late Friday, the winds had subsided but the National Weather Service still warned of extreme fire danger in some Southern California areas because of very low humidity.

The fire burned as power was restored to most of the nearly 2 million residents in the northern part of the state who lost electricity after Pacific Gas & Electric Co. switched it off Wednesday to prevent a repeat of the past two years when its equipment sparked deadly, destructive wildfires during windy weather.

The cause of the Los Angeles blaze wasn't immediately known, though arson investigators said a witness reported seeing sparks or flames coming from a power line near where the fire is believed to have started, said Peter Sanders, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

A Sylmar man, Robert Delgado, said he saw flames under a high-voltage electrical transmission tower near his home at around the time the fire broke out.

"We had just finished praying the rosary, like we do every night" when his wife looked out a window and saw fire at the bottom of the tower, Delgado told KABC-TV.

"We immediately ran downstairs, went to the backyard, pulled out the hoses," he said, but the wind-whipped flames moved with terrifying speed.

"There were flames and embers flying over those bushes at the back of our house and over our house," Delgado said. "I was overwhelmed at the sight." He called it a miracle that his home survived.

Southern California Edison said it owns the transmission tower shown on KABC-TV, but a spokeswoman would not confirm that was where the fire began. The utility said it could take a long time to determine the cause and origin of the fire.

Jonathan Stahl was driving home to Valencia when he saw the smoke and immediately diverted to a mobile home park in Sylmar where his grandmother and aunt live together.

The park had been nearly wiped out in 2008 when one of the city's most destructive fires leveled 500 homes.

"Oh my God, it's coming this way," his aunt said when Stahl called to alert them and she looked out the window, he said.

Stahl helped his grandmother, Beverly Stahl, 91, who was in her pajamas, and his aunt to pack clothing, medication and take their two dogs. They saw flames in the distance as they drove away.

"We just packed up what we could as fast as we could," Stahl said at an evacuation center at the Sylmar Recreation Center, massaging his grandmother's shoulders as she sat in a wheelchair with a Red Cross blanket on her lap. "If we'd stuck around, we would have been in trouble. Real big trouble."

The Los Angeles fire broke out hours after flaming garbage in a trash truck sparked another blaze when the driver dumped his load to keep the rig from catching fire. But the dry grass quickly ignited and powerful winds blew the flames into a mobile park in Calimesa, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of downtown Los Angeles.

Seventy-four buildings were destroyed and 16 others were damaged. Several residents of the park were unaccounted for.

The family of 89-year-old Lois Arvickson feared she died in the blaze that destroyed her home.

Arvickson had called her son to say she was evacuating.

"She said she's getting her purse and she's getting out, and the line went dead," Don Turner said.

He said neighbors saw his mother in her garage as flames approached. They later saw the garage on fire. Her car was still parked in the driveway.

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