Calif. Fire Officials Expect Wildfire to Worsen
Dec. 07—LOS ANGELES—The onslaught of fire tearing through real estate in Southern California raged for a third day Wednesday as a new blaze erupted near the Getty Center in Los Angeles, igniting mansions in posh Bel-Air, forcing more evacuations and shutting down a major freeway.
The fast-moving blaze was one of five conflagrations that have laid waste to neighborhoods and businesses and forced thousands to flee as harsh Santa Ana winds continue to blow arid inland air downhill toward the ocean into flatland communities.
State fire officials say the worst is yet to come. Offshore winds were expected to continue to fan the flames with gusts of 30-50 mph.
"These are the kind of conditions that keep public safety officials up at night," said Janet Upton, deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. "This is that worst-case scenario that we prepare for but hope doesn't happen."
The latest fire, dubbed the Skirball Fire, broke out just before 5 a.m. Wednesday and, driven by 25 mph winds, crackled uphill in a southerly direction next to Interstate 405 where it intersects with Mulholland Drive in Bel-Air.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a local state of emergency after the blaze nearly tripled in size to 125 acres, destroying at least four homes. Several other homes were in jeopardy and flames surrounded the Getty Center, a museum campus atop a hill featuring art, architecture and gardens.
"These are days that break your heart, but they are also days that show the resilience of our city," Garcetti said.
Helicopters dropped water as 350 firefighters attempted to beat back the flames, which initially shut down all lanes of Interstate 405 between Highway 101 to the north and Interstate 10 to the south. The southbound lanes of I-405 were reopened about 9 a.m., but the northbound lanes remained closed.
"We are losing some property and that is tragic, but the most important thing is people's lives," said Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz. "Any home that could be saved by our wonderful first responders will be saved."
The Skirball Fire—named after the nearby Skirball Cultural Center, which features Jewish artifacts, art exhibits, music and theater—forced evacuations of residents in neighborhoods bordered by Mulholland Drive, I-405, Sunset Boulevard and Roscomare Road.
It joined a cluster of fires that began Sunday night when extreme offshore gusts, also known as sundowner winds, blew in and lit up the sky, much like the fires that raced through Northern California in October.
At least 4,000 firefighters from around the state and 74 aircraft, including dozens of helicopters, were battling flames in Los Angeles and Ventura counties Wednesday. The biggest inferno, the Thomas Fire, has consumed 90,000 acres across a massive swath of land from Santa Paula to the Pacific Ocean.
It jumped Highway 101 and was burning Wednesday in and around the city of Ventura, forcing the evacuations of 50,000 people, Cal Fire officials said. The fire, which had 5 percent containment, has destroyed at least 150 structures and was threatening 12,000 others.
The other big one, the Creek Fire, turned as many as 50 buildings to ash after it broke out near Sylmar and Lake View Terrace in Los Angeles. By Wednesday night, it had scorched 12,605 acres and forced the evacuation of 110,000 people. It, too, had 5 percent containment.
No humans have died in the fires, but the Creek Fire caused a grievous tragedy, killing as many as 30 horses that were trapped in their stalls Tuesday as the flames marched through a wooded canyon in the San Fernando Valley. The bloated carcasses lay sprawled on the ground Wednesday amid the savaged buildings at Rancho Padilla, a family ranch in the town of Sylmar.
Nearby, Bob Booher returned from a business trip Tuesday morning just in time to pull out a hose and save his house on Little Tujunga Canyon Road, but the fire destroyed 10 trucks used for his telecommunications business in a fenced yard across the street. When he reached his house, embers were blowing all over the place.
"They looked like flying, glowing red softballs. Dozens of them. A hundred at a time," said Booher, as he hosed down the smoldering chassis of one truck Wednesday afternoon. "I saved my house and lost everything else."
Two houses, one on either side of his, were destroyed. It helped that he had recently cleared brush around his house, but Booher said luck also played a part.
"It's amazing what fire does to stuff," he said, as he stood next to a tree that miraculously escaped the flames. "I lost all my trucks. I lost my 18-foot fishing boat. But this tree is just fine."
Meanwhile, the 7,000-acre Rye Fire spread from Santa Clarita, Los Angeles County, to the edge of Ventura County and was 10 percent contained Wednesday evening.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in the path of California's wildfires," President Trump tweeted Wednesday. "I encourage everyone to heed the advice and orders of local and state officials. THANK YOU to all First Responders for your incredible work!"
Upton of Cal Fire said she cannot remember any time when so many wind-driven fires were burning at the same time this late in the fire season. The Santa Ana winds, she said, are now expected to last into next week, with gusts reaching 65 to 80 mph Thursday, a potentially catastrophic condition.
"It's not our goal to create panic," Upton said, "but when the predicted situation is so dire that it makes you lose sleep at night, you have to impress upon the public the severity of the situation."
It is so bad that the National Weather Service—which normally uses yellow, orange and red to gauge how severe the wind will be on its graphs—created a whole new color, purple, to depict the extreme conditions expected Thursday.
As fire engines rushed from fire to fire and exhausted crews attempted to gain control over the increasingly volatile situation, Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said vegetation in the region is drier "than I've ever seen it" in his 31 years in the department.
No significant rain has fallen in Southern California since July.
"Any area that has brush in the city of Los Angeles is threatened," Terrazas said. "We are stretched thin."
As the Bel-Air hillside burned, Kristina Keefe waited at a gas station with her pit bull Gunnar to see if she would be allowed to return to her Bellagio Road home.
"I was very scared," said Keefe, who was awakened by sirens at 6 a.m. "I threw a lot of expensive things and some photographs in a bag and prepared to evacuate to our Palm Springs house."
Later in the day, she said police officers indicated they would be reopening her street, but by then she had decided her Palm Springs domicile was the better option. "It's a nice house, and it's better to be safe," she said.
Terrazas likened the blaze to the 1961 Bel-Air Fire, which destroyed nearly 500 homes, including several belonging to Hollywood celebrities. The difference is, that one hit in November and lasted only two days. These wind-driven fires are not expected to let up for a few days, he said.
"The greatest threat is and continues to be the wind," he said, noting that the Santa Ana winds are expected to keep blowing through Friday.
As fire swirled around them Wednesday, employees at the Getty Center, which is currently featuring masterpieces by the Italian painter Caravaggio, announced on Twitter that the art galleries would be closed.
"Air filtration systems are protecting the galleries from smoke," the museum tweeted.
UCLA, about 3 miles from the Skirball Fire, canceled classes Wednesday afternoon. More than 50 public schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District were also shuttered.
At its peak, 43,000 homes lost power as a result of the fires, but by Wednesday afternoon, fewer than 9,000 customers were still without electricity , according to Southern California Edison.
Edison representatives sought Wednesday to tamp down suspicion that its equipment may have started the fires in Southern California.
Based on the location of the blazes, there is "no indication that the company's facilities were a source of these fires," the utility said in a statement.