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Brush Fire Destroys 10 Homes in Puente Hills

Times Staff Writers

Fire, possibly started by an arsonist, raged out of control in the Puente Hills north of Whittier on Monday, destroying 10 homes, damaging at least three others and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents, authorities said.

Hampered by high temperatures and unpredictable winds, more than 600 firefighters battled to contain the blaze, which had charred 75 acres by early evening, Los Angeles County fire officials said.

“It’s burning like a maniac,” was the way county Firefighter Bill Borthwick put it.

“It’s a nightmare at the top of the hill,” said horse trainer Jill Snyder, 18, of Hacienda Heights, as she led two horses and two goats to safety. “From the horse trail, you could see flames everywhere.”

County fire spokesman John Lenihan said arson investigators pinpointed where the fire started on the shoulder of Turnbull Canyon Road.

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“There’s no reason for an area like that to be touched off,” he said. “It’s not an area where you would expect to have a fire ignite.”

A column of blue-black smoke, billowing hundreds of feet up from the blaze, was clearly visible from as far away as West Los Angeles and Hollywood.

Officials closed a section of the Pomona Freeway between the San Gabriel River Freeway and 7th Street in Hacienda Heights because of the blaze, and traffic was virtually gridlocked on surface streets in the area, sheriff’s deputies said.

The fire broke out shortly before 2 p.m. near Turnbull Canyon Road and Skyline Drive, a county fire spokesman said.

More than 200 homes were evacuated as firefighting crews began cutting fire breaks near homes, preparing to make a stand against the flames that were hopscotching from ridge to ridge in the rugged, chaparral-covered canyon.

Steve Benton of Hacienda Heights said he spotted the fire shortly after it erupted.

“It started as a small brush fire on the Whittier side of the ridge near Turnbull Canyon Road,” he said. “All of a sudden, the wind caught it, and it was gone.”

Water-Dropping Copters

Two “strike teams” of five engine companies each responded to the original call at 1:43 p.m., officials said. Five more engine companies and five water-dropping helicopters were dispatched to the scene at 3 p.m. after winds picked up, firefighters said.

By 5 p.m., more than 400 firefighters, including 14 hand crews cutting fire breaks in the brush, were battling the flames with the focus on saving homes.

Two homes were destroyed on Skyline Drive near Turnbull Canyon Road. Residents on nearby Blue Sky Road refused to evacuate when deputies first told them to do so at 4 p.m.

“I am trying to save my house,” said John Anderson, as he sprayed water on his wood shingle roof from a garden hose as the flames licked less than 50 yards away.

Anderson tried to remain upbeat and joked about passing soft drinks to firefighters clearing a break behind his house.

Chad Gonella said he was taking his girlfriend home when he spotted the smoke from the Pomona Freeway and knew it was in his neighborhood. He said sheriff’s deputies “told me to leave, but I came back anyway. I ended up helping the Fire Department. They gave me a hose. The fire got pretty close for a while, but it looks as though I’m going to make it.”

By late afternoon, winds were blowing flames away from Blue Sky Road, where homes are valued at more than $700,000. But county Fire Capt. Mark Morgan said he was not sure the area was out of danger.

“We’re just trying to make sure the fire doesn’t get to the houses,” he said.

Firefighters Driven Back

Just as two dozen firefighters reached the top of a ridge behind Blue Sky Road, a burst of flame ignited the brush, forcing them to scurry back to the canyon below, Morgan said. When the fire did not spread and it appeared safe, they returned to the ridge to cut breaks.

The evacuees--whose homes were in the vicinity of Turnbull Canyon Road and Blue Sky Road, Descending Drive, Edgeridge Drive, Skyline Drive and Las Tunas Drive--were sent to nearby Los Altos High School, 15325 E. Los Robles Ave., county fire spokesman Joe Silva said.

“The Red Cross is here and has set up an evacuation center,” said Joyce Craig, assistant superintendent of the Los Altos School District.

Residents, she said, “are kind of checking in and checking out. It’s like a message center right now. I don’t think there are too many people there. They are leaving messages for each other--saying, ‘I’m OK’ or ‘I have gone to wherever.”

Craig said the Red Cross was “really rallying their volunteers to come over and man the station. They have their file system all organized. They’re taking messages, and people are coming in.”

She said the residents sent down by the deputies seem to “be very much in control.”

‘Concern on Their Faces’

“They are concerned, and you can see that concern on their faces. But right now they’re handling it,” Craig said.

“This is the first major fire this area has had in a long time,” she added.

As firefighters focused attention on the Puente Hills, about 10 acres were burned in a blaze near the Griffith Park Observatory, Los Angeles fire officials said.

The fire started at about 3:30 p.m. and was extinguished within an hour. One firefighter suffered minor injuries battling the blaze, whose cause is under investigation, officials said.

No structures were threatened.

An upper-level high pressure system over the desert Southwest was helping to create a dry, southwesterly flow of air over the Southland, sending temperatures into the 90s in many areas, including the Puente Hills. The Los Angeles Civic Center high reached 88 degrees.

The National Weather Service said little change is expected through midweek. The forecast calls for late-night through mid-morning low clouds and fog near the coast. Otherwise fair skies and continued hot days are expected through Wednesday, with highs ranging from 92 at the Civic Center to 104 in the valleys.

Times staff writers Stephen Braun, Edward J. Boyer, John Kendall and Craig Quintana contributed to this story.


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