Someone using a weed wacker to clear brush in preparation for another brutal fire season ignited a dangerous blaze Tuesday afternoon in an upscale hillside neighborhood on the city’s Westside, offering a stark reminder of the region’s fire-prone landscape.
Residents of about 86 homes were ordered to pack their important belongings and find shelter elsewhere as hundreds of firefighters swarmed the narrow, winding streets in the Beverly Crest and Benedict Canyon areas and mounted an aggressive attack.
By nightfall, the blaze was 25% contained and displaced residents were allowed to return home. Crews were expected to stay on the scene stamping out hot spots through the night.
“We hit it pretty hard,” Art Marrujo, a dispatch supervisor with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said of the blaze that ripped through about 40 acres of brush. “We usually don’t start burning till July, August. Here we are in June, burning — just typical of what’s going on.”
The blaze, dubbed the Portola fire, comes after a dry winter and after one of the most destructive fire seasons on record in California history, prompting firm warnings from Los Angeles fire officials.
They urged residents to use licensed contractors who follow safety rules — avoiding metal blades and carrying an extinguisher — for brush clearance. The weed wacker’s exhaust manifolds probably overheated, officials said, and set off the blaze. Others pushed for vigilance with campfires and cigarette butts.
“We’re truly never out of fire season,” Marrujo said. “Because of the drought and no rain and everything else, all the vegetation out there is dried up and easier to catch fire and spread more rapidly than normal.”
On Tuesday, firefighters from multiple agencies cut down trees with chainsaws, sprayed water and used shovels to create a firebreak to keep the fire from reaching multimillion-dollar homes. Two firefighters were injured, one with a burn and the other with heat exhaustion.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles police officers knocked on doors, telling residents they had to leave.
Natasha Super, 23, spent an hour and a half with her family, gathering up photos, computers and important documents from her childhood home near Summitridge and San Ysidro drives.
She placed a green backpack inside the trunk of her gray Honda Civic as smoke rose into the sky in the distance. Helicopters made water drops and cars sped past her.
“It’s very scary,” she said.
Super said this is the first time she’s had to evacuate because of a brush fire. “This is my childhood home. I hope nothing happens to it,” she said.
Shortly before 4:30 p.m., Homa Hakimi, 66, walked out of her ranch-style home in the Beverly Crest neighborhood. She had heard a helicopter hovering nearby and sirens from firetrucks. Standing in her driveway, she saw neighbors stacking boxes and clothes into their luxury cars and SUVs.
“Do I have to evacuate?” she asked a reporter. “I’m nervous.”
Soon afterward, she ran back inside her home.
“I have to go,” she said.
Despite the fire’s proximity to homes, firefighters were aided by decent weather conditions.
Winds clocked in at only 4 mph to 7 mph, with 14 mph wind gusts over the ridge tops — conditions that allowed firefighters to set up defensive positions on the surrounding ridge tops to make a stand.
The winds are “not going to drive the fire, which is a good thing,” said Kathy Hoxsie, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “Firefighters can dig in where they are.”
Though temperatures were in the upper 80s on Tuesday, they were expected to dip to 60 in the evening before rising again Wednesday, Hoxsie said.
The blaze is the latest of several brush fires to break out in recent weeks. Over the weekend, a fire burned along the 5 Freeway in the Santa Clarita Valley. And the week before that, a fast-moving fire burned in a wilderness area between Laguna Beach and Aliso Viejo.
As firefighters were battling the Portola fire, three small fires broke out above Chatsworth Park, the city’s Fire Department said. The blazes burned only about two acres, but access was limited, requiring crews to hike in.
And in Riverside County, a car fire on the 71 Freeway in Chino ignited nearby brush, eventually burning 120 acres and shutting down all northbound lanes for several hours.
About 120 firefighters were battling the blaze from the air and on the ground.