Saddleridge fire explodes to 4,700 acres, burns 25 homes in San Fernando Valley – Los Angeles Times

A fast-moving brush fire continued its destructive march into the northern foothills of the San Fernando Valley on Friday, burning at least 25 homes, closing freeways and forcing thousands to flee.

The Saddleridge fire, which broke out late Thursday in Sylmar amid strong Santa Ana winds, spread rapidly overnight west into Porter Ranch and other communities, burning more than 4,700 acres at a rate of roughly 800 acres per hour, Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said early Friday.

“These weather conditions are significant,” Terrazas said. “You can imagine the embers from the wind have been traveling at significant distances, which cause other fires to start.”

Mandatory evacuations have been issued to roughly 23,000 homes making up a huge swath of neighborhoods north of the 118 Freeway from Tampa Avenue all the way to the Ventura County line — an area covering 100,000 residents.

One firefighter suffered a minor injury to his eye, and a man in his late 50s died after suffering a heart attack while talking with firefighters early Friday, Terrazas said. Authorities could not confirm reports that the man was trying to fight the fire from his home before he was stricken.

More than 1,000 firefighters from multiple agencies were attacking the blaze Friday from the air and ground. Officials deployed helicopters and amphibious firefighting aircraft known as Super Scoopers, while ground crews manned bulldozers to cut containment lines into nearby hillsides in an effort to slow the fire’s spread. At least one air tanker blanketed fire retardant across the ridges.

However, unrelenting winds gusting up to 50 mph, low humidity and rising temperatures — which can dry out brush that fuels the fire — put crews at a disadvantage. Officials said they expect it will take days to get the blaze under control.

“Nobody is going home right away,” Terrazas said.

Evacuation zones

The fire was first reported in Sylmar about 9 p.m. Thursday on the north side of the 210 Freeway, but wind-driven firebrands soared over the 210 and 5 freeways and ignited more dry brush. A 30-acre spot fire broke out west of Balboa Boulevard and pushed westward, officials said.

There are few options for firefighters against a wind-whipped fire with a lot of fuel, Los Angeles firefighter John Ferrer said.

“Because of the wind-driven factor, it creates a more defensive posture for firefighters,” Ferrer said. “We wait until the wind dies down and can deploy adequate resources to contain the flanks of the fire and an early-morning attack on the fire.”

The blaze moved so quickly that it jumped into neighborhoods overnight before firefighters and police could warn residents.

In Porter Ranch, a man stared as waves of embers crested against a two-story home abutting a hillside on Sheffield Way and flames lapped at the back of the structure.

“That’s my home,” he said. He had gotten out 15 minutes earlier.

Flames had already reached a second home on the cul-de-sac, which was choked with thick gray smoke, punctured only by the high beams of fleeing cars speeding through the small streets that crisscross the hillsides.

Kuriakose Chaz watched flames scale the side of the canyon, thinking about his Porter Ranch home of six years just a few blocks from the houses that by 2:30 a.m. were beginning to be devoured.

“If it goes,” he said, “it goes.”

Chaz, who’d gone to sleep at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, was awakened by a call around midnight from his nephew, who works for Southern California Edison and was monitoring the fire.

His nephew said, “You need to go.”

Chaz watched, dismayed, as flames charred the canyon he often enjoys hiking. Thick brush that had been watered by the winter’s plentiful rains stoked the blaze.

“I’ve watched fires on the news,” Chaz said. “But this hits home. I live here.”

Cece Merkerson first noticed an orange glow from the living room of her third-story apartment in Porter Ranch about 11:30 p.m. Thursday. She had heard a fire was raging in nearby Granada Hills but figured it was a safe distance away.

“That can’t be that fire,” she thought. “That can’t be it.”

She checked the TV news, but there wasn’t an evacuation order for Porter Ranch. To calm her nerves, Merkerson started packing anyway: medication, a small safe with important papers, a change of clothes and a couple of bananas.

Around 2 a.m., Merkerson looked through her window and saw flames. The mandatory evacuation order was issued minutes later.

“I started knocking on all my neighbors’ doors because I knew they were sleeping,” she said. “I’m banging and banging and I woke up about eight of them — and they all looked at me like I was crazy.”

Several major highways were closed because of the blaze, snarling morning traffic across the region, the California Highway Patrol said. The 210 Freeway was shut down in both directions between the 5 and 118 freeways. The 5 Freeway was closed between Roxford Street and Calgrove Boulevard. The 14 Freeway was closed at Newhall Avenue. Authorities have not said when the roads will reopen.

Evacuations have been ordered for Oakridge Estates, Glenoaks, the Foothill area and into neighborhoods in Granada Hills and Porter Ranch. Officials warned that other communities near the fire need to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Evacuees included hundreds of teenagers incarcerated at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall facility in Sylmar, not far from the fire’s edge.

The facility holds 278 teenagers, most of them 15 to 18, along with dozens of facility officers and workers. They all were being relocated to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, said facility spokesman Kerri Webb. It was an hours-long process to move them all.

“It’s very methodical. We have to utilize a lot of security,” Webb said. “Right now, getting everyone out safely is our highest priority.”

About 1 a.m. Friday, several Sylmar residents stood about three miles from Oakridge Estates, which was under a mandatory evacuation order, watching the fire burn in the mountains beyond.

Iván DeGuzman, 34, said he had packed his car hours before after receiving a text message from a friend alerting him to the fire. He loaded up passports, clothes and some other items.

He recalled how the neighborhood was overwhelmed by smoke and ashes during a massive 2008 fire in Sylmar. He had evacuated then, but said it was still too early to go now.

“We’re waiting for mandatory evacuations,” he said.

Kim Thompson, who lives at the intersection of Sesnon Boulevard and Jolette Avenue in Granada Hills, said she took her dog out at 10 p.m. Thursday and immediately smelled smoke.

After reading about the fire on Twitter and realizing it was a danger,Thompson evacuated her home about midnight, taking just her dog. The flames by then were “bright orange, terrifying to look at,” she said at a strip mall downhill from her neighborhood on Balboa where other displaced residents had gathered to await news.

Later, she admitted, she doubled back to retrieve a bottle of wine. Her neighbors were less willing to leave: “Up here, we’re stubborn. My neighbors are spraying their roofs right now.”

A little after 1 a.m., Thompson heard from a friend that fire crews were allowing two homes on Jolette Avenue to burn to the ground. She thought back to the Aliso Canyon and Sayre fires, which burned to the very edge of her cul-de-sac.

“We’ve been through a lot, but we choose to live here,” she said.

“You’re on edge. You think you get used to it,” Thompson said, the wind whipping eye-stinging smoke and ash through the air, “but you can’t really get used to this.”

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