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Calif. Wildfire Forces Thousands to Evacuate Overnight

Los Angeles Times

The Saddleridge fire made a destructive march Friday into the northern foothills of the San Fernando Valley, burning numerous homes, closing two freeways and forcing thousands to flee.

The fire, which started late Thursday in Sylmar, is moving rapidly to the west toward Porter Ranch and other communities. By 4 a.m., the fire had chewed through more than 4,000 acres, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Mandatory evacuations were issued to roughly 12,700 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. No injuries have been reported.

The blaze was moving so fast that it jumped into neighborhoods before firefighters and police could warn residents.

In Porter Ranch, waves of embers crested against a two-story home on Sheffield Way; flames lapped at the back of it, which abuts a hillside.

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

Flames already licked a second home on the cul-de-sac, which was choked with thick gray smoke, punctured only by the high beams of cars that sped out of the capillaries of small streets that crisscross the hillsides here.

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 the canyon he enjoys hiking billowed in flame, the brush that had been watered by this year’s plentiful rains stoking 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 a mandatory evacuation ordered 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. A 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.”

The fire was first reported about 9 p.m. on the north side of the 210 Freeway, but with winds gusting up to 60 mph, 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.

At least two homes caught fire on Jolette Street in Granada Hills as residents streamed to Knollwood Plaza.

Evacuations have been ordered for Oakridge Estates, Glenoaks, the Foothill area and into neighborhoods in Granada Hills and Porter Ranch.

That order 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 ages 15 to 18, along with dozens of facility officers and workers. They’re all headed to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, said facility spokesman Kerri Webb. It’s an hours-long process to move them all.

“Because of the fact they are in a correctional facility, it’s very methodical,” Webb said. “We have to utilize a lot of security.”

While officers have to ensure that the high-risk youths remain separated from the rest of the population, at the end of the day, they’re all still kids, Webb said.

“They get freaked out. The fire is right there. It would freak out anyone,” Webb said. “We have to keep them calm. Once these kids see the fire right there they realize, ‘OK, we’re going to do what the officers tell us.’”

The evacuation was expected to be completed by 3 a.m., Webb said. Once the transfer is completed, the county probation department will open a hotline that parents can call to get more information about their children. She said that everyone is safe and that the facility has not been damaged.

“Right now getting everyone out safely is our highest priority,” she added.

Meanwhile, firefighters were throwing everything they could at the blaze through the night.

They deployed bulldozers, multiple helicopters and, remarkably, a fixed-wing aircraft making retardant drops under the cover of darkness. State fire regulations prohibit flying fixed-wing aircraft after dark, but the plane was with the U.S. Forest Service, said Los Angeles firefighter John Ferrer.

“It is unusual,” Ferrer acknowledged. “It’s probably because the incident is so dynamic.”

The fire was pushing both east and west, running parallel to the 210 Freeway.

Firefighters were concerned with its westward push, which would eventually get it close to new developments and Topanga Canyon, Ferrer said. There are few options for firefighters against a wind-driven fire with lots of things to burn.

“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. But at this time we’re in flux.”

At least one business was burned and local news broadcasts showed several homes and an apartment complex on fire.

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 them.

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

He recalled how the street by his home was covered in smoke and ashes during a massive 2008 wildfire in Sylmar. He had evacuated then, but said that it’s still too early to go now.

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

More spot fires popped up on the valley floor beneath power lines and near other buildings, further spreading firefighters’ resources thin.

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

After reading about the fire on Twitter and realizing it was sizable, Thompson evacuated her home about midnight, taking just her dog. The flames by then were “bright orange, terrifying to look at,” she said.

Later, she admits, 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.”

She was waiting to hear the fate of her neighborhood at a strip mall downhill from her home on Balboa, to which many residents had decamped.

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 ash through the air, watering the eyes with smoke, “but you can’t really get used to this.”

Firefighters were focusing their air attack on the rear of the fire in the hills, Stewart said, while firefighters on the ground were defending structures.

Winds were blowing at about 10 to 15 mph on the valley floor and about 25 mph in the foothills above Sylmar, with gusts as strong as 60 mph. The air remains extremely dry and primed to encourage fire growth, the National Weather Service said.

The California Highway Patrol shut down the 210 Freeway in both directions between the 5 and 118 freeways.The 5 Freeway was closed between Balboa and the 210 Freeway. The 14 Freeway was closed at Newhall. There was no indication of when the freeways would reopen.

Authorities urged residents from the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys to be patient during the morning commute given the freeway closures.

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