7,500-acre Saddleridge Fire is 19% contained as winds weaken in San Fernando Valley


LOS ANGELES (KTLA) — Firefighters battling the massive Saddleridge Fire that exploded in the San Fernando Valley on Thursday and forced the evacuation of thousands of homes made progress overnight with the weakening of the Santa Ana winds.

The size of the blaze held at just over 7,500 acres, or 11.7 square miles, and was 19% contained, Capt. Branden Silverman with the Los Angeles Fire Department said Saturday morning.

The cause of the fire 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 L.A. Fire Department.

Crews battled some flareups overnight, but they were not significant, Silverman said on Saturday. The estimated number of structures damaged or destroyed remained at around 31, believed to include about 25 homes, and no further injuries have been reported, Silverman said.

Authorities previously announced one death in the fire: a man who suffered cardiac arrest while apparently trying to protect his home from approaching flames with a garden hose, his neighbor in Porter Ranch said.

Fire officials planned to deploy additional aircraft on Saturday afternoon, when a slight onshore flow was expected to improve conditions.

Air units are not as effective when wind speed exceeds 40 mph, and most of the fire has been burning in steep terrain that’s difficult to access, said Capt. Tony Imbrenda with the L.A. County Fire Department.

“The lack of high wind speed that we saw the first night of this fire really enhanced our ability to start putting more personnel up on the line and utilize our aircraft to get a higher rate of containment, Imbrenda said.

While winds were expected to continue diminishing through Saturday, forecasters warned that conditions will remain dangerously dry. A red flag warning for much of L.A. and Ventura county mountains and valleys had been extended from Friday evening to 6 p.m. Saturday.

Freeways that closed due to the fire were mostly reopened by Saturday, but Caltrans said that could change depending on weather conditions.

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 the wind-driven Saddleridge Fire. It spread westward through the tinder-dry brush in hilly subdivisions on the outskirts of the nation’s second-largest city.

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 a 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.

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 in Calimesa 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.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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