Return of powerful winds poses 'extreme fire danger' across Southern California

Several homes were destroyed by a wildfire in Bel-Air on Wednesday, and authorities warned of potentially catastrophic winds continuing through at least Thursday.

Authorities said high winds — which could top 50 mph in some areas — create an “extreme fire danger.”

The forecast is disturbing enough that the Los Angeles school system has canceled classes at many San Fernando Valley campuses and officials are bracing for more fires across the region. Powerful winds can worsen existing fires but also help fan new ones.

About midnight, UCLA canceled Thursday classes “given the array of uncertainties caused by the fire near campus,” according to an alert posted on the university’s website. “This is a difficult decision, since final exams begin on Saturday.”

The university’s medical centers and clinics will remain open.

Los Angeles police warned Brentwood residents to prepare to evacuate in case a wind shift sends embers westward.

“If we ask you to leave, LEAVE,” authorities wrote in a letter to residents. “There is no property worth the safety of you or your family.”

Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, echoed that warning.

“There will be no ability to fight fire in these kinds of winds,” he said. “At the end of the day, we need everyone in the public to listen and pay attention. This is not ‘watch the news and go about your day.’ This is pay attention minute by minute … keep your head on a swivel.”

The warning came as firefighters were trying to contain the Bel-Air fire, which prompted evacuations in a large swath of the hillside enclave.

After several tense hours, firefighters appeared to be getting a handle on the fire, which burned in the same area as the destructive 1961 Bel-Air fire. That blaze destroyed more than 500 homes and prompted some of the city’s toughest fire safety regulations.

Wednesday’s fire erupted about 4:50 a.m. in the brush next to the northbound 405 Freeway, near Mulholland Drive. Flames fanned by 25-mph winds quickly traveled east into Bel-Air, scorching 475 acres and destroying four homes by the afternoon, officials said. Another 11 homes were damaged, and the fire was 5% contained by 3 p.m., officials said.

“It’s been years since anything here has burned at all,” said Los Angeles Fire Capt. Cody Weireter. “You’ve got heavy, heavy brush, you’ve got the dryness — obviously, we haven’t had any rain at all. A lot of the fire is topography-driven, which already becomes dangerous. The wind is going to increase that twofold.”

More than 350 firefighters, 52 engines and six fixed-wing aircraft had low temperatures and humidity on their side as they battled the blaze from the north, west and east in high winds.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a state of emergency Wednesday morning.

“These are days that break your heart,” Garcetti said. “These are also days that show the resilience of our city.”

After the fire erupted, authorities completely shut down the 405 Freeway between the 10 and the 101 freeways, even as they ordered evacuations in a 3.2-square-mile zone stretching from Mulholland Drive to Sunset Boulevard, and from Roscomare Road on the east to the 405 Freeway on the west.

The freeway has since reopened, though the Moraga Drive, Getty Center Drive and Skirball Center Drive offramps from the northbound 405 remained closed, the California Highway Patrol said about 5 p.m.

Jackson Rogow, 24, woke up at 6 a.m. to the smell of smoke and the wail of sirens. He ran outside in his boxer shorts and saw his neighbors on Bellagio Road standing in the street and packing their cars. The moon was blood red, he said.

He prepared to leave with his girlfriend, the couple’s cat, Zeppelin, and a bag of kitty litter. His girlfriend found a stack of photographs of her late father. Rogow waved to a truck as it whizzed by around 7 a.m. He shouted, “Should I leave?” A firefighter gave him a thumbs-up, he said, but he wasn’t sure what that meant.

By 8:30 a.m., Rogow received a phone alert to evacuate.

But as those in the evacuation zone tried to flee, some were trapped in a traffic on narrow, winding roads.

​​​​​​Drivers seeking alternate routes between the San Fernando Valley and the Westside are getting stuck in traffic on winding, hilly streets in the fire area, which could pose a danger to themselves and to firefighters, LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said.

“It’s getting all jammed up in there,” he said. “They’re deep into the evacuation area.”

Rubenstein urged drivers to stay away from the area bounded by the mandatory evacuation order.

Elementary school and college students alike in Santa Monica, Malibu and parts of West L.A. were told to stay home Wednesday. UCLA canceled classes as the campus and parts of Westwood lost power, forcing the university to rely on its backup sources for about an hour until power was restored.

Among the properties threatened was publishing billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s 16-acre Moraga Vineyards estate, which is on Moraga Drive.

A pocket of the vineyard on top of a hill in the estate was smoking and burning, firefighters said Wednesday afternoon. At 1:45 p.m., helicopters were dropping water onto the vineyard. No structure on Murdoch’s property was on fire, authorities said.

Murdoch released a statement Wednesday saying television footage showed there may be damage to some buildings in the upper vineyard area, but the house and the winery appear to be intact.

“The situation at Moraga Bel-Air is very fluid at the moment,” he said in the statement. “We are monitoring the situation as closely as we can and are grateful to the efforts of all the first responders. Some of our neighbors have suffered heavy losses and our thoughts and prayers are with them at this difficult time.”

Firetrucks having to navigate the narrow lanes on the block focused their efforts up the street earlier in the day, where thick brush was being quickly consumed by flames.

In the 1200 block of Moraga Drive around 10:45 a.m., a firefighter helped a woman place her black suitcase inside her Bentley. She drove away quickly, leaving her yellow Spanish-style house surrounded by flames.

Thick, green brush sizzled about 100 feet away on the hill behind the yellow house, as the flames grew larger.

“Our greatest threat is, and will always continue to be, the wind,” Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said during a 9:30 a.m. news conference.

Other fires in Southern California have stretched resources thin. The LAFD has scaled back the number of employees and engines responding to 911 calls in other areas of the city, Terrazas said.

National Weather Service forecasts call for continued windy conditions through Thursday at least.

Sweet said winds are expected to gust to 40 to 45 mph in coastal areas, 50 to 60 mph in the valleys, and as high as 70 mph in the mountains Wednesday night and Thursday morning, said National Weather Service meteorologist David Sweet.

Officials also urged residents west of the fire — bounded by Mulholland, Sunset, the 405 and Mandeville Canyon Road — to be ready to leave, although that area is not under an evacuation order. As of 11 a.m., the fire remained east of the 405 Freeway.

“We are losing some property and that is tragic, but the most important thing is peoples’ lives,” said City Councilman Paul Koretz, whose district includes the area that is burning. No injuries or deaths were reported as of 11 a.m.

​​​The following recreation centers have been opened as evacuation sites: Delano, Balboa, Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks, Westwood and Cheviot Hills.

Residents near Bel Terrace and North Sepulveda Boulevard raced outside Wednesday morning as flames encroached on their homes.

Beverly Freeman, 83, pulled out of her driveway ahead of the flames just before 7 a.m. She didn’t take any belongings with her.

As Freeman drove away from the two-story gray house that her husband built for her three decades ago, she was not sure whether she would have a home to return to.

“I was going to die in this house,” she said as tears came to her eyes, ash and smoke swirling in the air. “The flames have never come so close.”

Before Rogow left his home, he remembered a conversation he’d had with his neighbor, who had temporarily left the state for cancer treatment. Before she left, Rogow asked her: “If your house is burning down, what do I grab?”

Her medals, she said. She had more than three dozen, from marathons, half-marathons and 5-kilometer races at Disney World. So Rogow broke a window, jumped inside and grabbed them.

Times staff writers Alene Tchekmedyian, Doug Smith and Kate Mather contributed to this report.

laura.nelson@latimes.com

melissa.etehad@latimes.com

Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com


UPDATES:

1 a.m. Dec. 7: This article was updated with a statement from UCLA and Los Angeles police.

9:05 p.m. This article was updated with forecast information.

5:15 p.m.: This article was updated with information from the California Highway Patrol.

4:30 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Rupert Murdoch.

3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with the fire’s new acreage, containment and homes destroyed.

2:10 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the fire and road closures

12:15 p.m.: This article was updated with information about firefighting efforts, power outages, affected homes and evacuation efforts.

10:55 a.m.: This article was updated with information from authorities, weather conditions and comments from Jackson Rogow.

9:40 a.m.: This article was updated with new acreage and damage.

9 a.m.: This article was updated with freeway closure information and a statement from UCLA.

8:20 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Weireter.

7:45 a.m.: This article was updated with new evacuation orders and school closures.

7:20 a.m.: This article was updated with residents evacuating.

6:55 a.m.: This article was updated with the full closure of the 405 Freeway.

6:10 a.m.: This article was updated with details on evacuation orders.

5:50 a.m.: This article was updated with acreage burned and freeway closure.

This article was originally published at 5:35 a.m. Dec. 6.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
74°