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Glendale’s Worst Fire Was ‘Like Flamethrower’ : Disaster: Despite quick discovery by a resident and rapid response by firefighters, it razed or damaged 66 homes.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The violent, five-hour conflagration that destroyed or damaged 66 homes in Glendale’s fashionable San Rafael Hills was so fast-moving that firefighters were on the defensive from the start and never really caught up until it was all over.

Glendale officials said Thursday they determined that the first units arrived within four minutes of a call to 911 reporting the blaze, sparked by a butane lighter tossed at the foot of a steep, brushy hillside on Verdugo Road.

Within 18 minutes, a countywide response was in motion.

And yet, from the beginning to end, firefighters were nearly always behind the fire and undermanned.

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By the time the first units arrived, a resident who phoned 911 when the fire was just a patch of yellow said it was roaring up the mountain.

The orange glow in the brush caught the eye of Jerry Llewelyn when he drove into his driveway on North Verdugo Road shortly after 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Llewelyn instantly recognized the danger and yelled for his wife to call the Glendale Fire Department. An emergency operator was on the phone when Llewelyn rushed into the house to report what was to become the worst fire in Glendale’s history.

“I told them that it was moving like hell,” Llewelyn said. “I knew that with those wind conditions and as dry as the brush was that every second counts.”

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The hillside was engulfed in flames and two structures were already burning when the first crews pulled up.

“What started out as a patch of fire was a roaring blaze in 10 minutes,” said Llewelyn’s wife, Terry. “It came close to taking an apartment building.”

Eight minutes after they arrived, firefighters designated the blaze a three-alarm fire, which called for the response of 16 units from Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena. In just another six minutes, the plea went out for “strike units"--engines and firefighters from as far away as the South Bay cities of Inglewood, Hermosa Beach, El Segundo, Gardena and Manhattan Beach.

But as the wail of sirens crossed the city from every direction, the fire was already blasting through the neighborhood of expensive hillside homes. Firefighters were chasing the flames and couldn’t get in front of them. Fireballs shot like bullets across eight lanes of the Glendale Freeway.

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Glendale Fire Chief John Montenero said the fire was the fastest-moving he and other firefighters had ever witnessed. “It hits and it goes almost like a flamethrower,” Montenero said.

On street after street, residents and spectators didn’t wait for firetrucks to arrive. They charged up the hillsides and attacked the rapidly approaching flames, beating them back with garden hoses, shovels of dirt and buckets of water drawn from back-yard pools.

Even when the firetrucks were in sight, it seemed firefighters were either too busy to help or, for one reason or another, unable to respond to everyone’s plea for assistance.

Ted Lamb climbed on the roof of his Sweetbriar Drive home with a hose while his neighbor, Don Reece, went to fetch the firefighters on a Glendale truck parked just a few doors down.

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“All they did was advise me to get off my property,” Reece said. “I told them to stick it.”

Lamb’s roof caught fire shortly afterward and collapsed into the living quarters.

Shortly before 5 p.m., the fire swept down a canyon behind several large homes on the cul-de-sac of Lorinda Drive. About a dozen young men in shorts and T-shirts seemed to materialize from nowhere and struggled up a steep slope behind the house of L’Chelle and Jin Kim. They shoveled dirt on burning brush, threw water from kettles and squirted a hose from a neighbor’s yard.

One of the men yelled to a police officer shooing spectators away: “Do you have fire equipment? We’re fighting the fire by hand!”

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At 5:05, a Pasadena firetruck backed into the cul-de-sac, but the firefighters made no attempt to join in the effort to save Kim’s house or those surrounding it.

“Sit down and take a break,” its commanding officer told his men. “We’re here until we receive further orders.”

The youths managed to save Kim’s house. Black smoke began to pour from a residence behind it but on another street whose entrance was miles away. A helicopter dropped a load of water, ineffectively. As everyone watched, flames erupted from the house. Minutes later, the firetruck left.

Battalion Chief Chris Gray defended the work of the fire crew against some residents’ criticism, saying they had to focus their efforts on one house at a time, even if it sometimes meant letting others burn.

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In all, Gray said, the city had 74 units, three water-dropping helicopters, two observation helicopters and about 300 firemen on the lines. But they couldn’t keep up as the fire swept down streets, skipping some homes, burning others.

On Foxkirk Road, Margaret Ross, a retired Los Angeles school office clerk, heard crackling on her roof and a civilian volunteer knocked on her door.

“Some man said, ‘Get out, your roof is on fire,’ ” Ross said. She said she tried to drive away, but couldn’t get past a firetruck that was working houses halfway up the sloping, dead-end street.

She went back down the street and watched her house burn.

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Amazingly, only eight people were reported hurt. They included two civilians among the scores who spontaneously joined the battle. Two others were policemen and four firefighters, all with minor injuries from burns, falls, smoke inhalation or other mishaps.

The city on Thursday declared a curfew in the area and opened an emergency support center in two trailers in the parking lot at Glendale Community College.

Later in the day, several Glendale City Council members joined Gov. George Deukmejian in a motorcade tour of the burned area, followed by an entourage of about 20 news vehicles. Deukmejian declared an emergency and established a reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the fire.

Little progress had been made Thursday in establishing a suspect. Gray said Glendale arson investigators were interviewing three witnesses who saw two men, about 20 and 25, driving a blue late ‘70s Honda near the spot where the fire began. However, no one was able to give a license plate number and the young men’s identities were still unknown, Gray said.

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Times staff writer Ursula Wiljanen contributed to this story.


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