Hillside fire threatens landmark, fouls the air

Times Staff Writers

A fast-moving brush fire cut a path through bone-dry terrain in the Hollywood Hills on Friday, churning massive plumes of smoke across the region that slowed traffic, jangled nerves and for a time threatened the Hollywood sign.

The 160-acre blaze, the largest in the heavily populated Hollywood Hills in nearly two decades, consumed brushland above the Warner Bros. Studio and Forest Lawn cemetery.

The fire occurred in what is usually Southern California’s rainy season and comes as the region is experiencing its driest year on record. Firefighters warned that they expect the fire danger to remain high through the spring.


Witnesses told authorities they saw two teenagers setting off fireworks about 1 p.m. near the Oakwood apartments, a temporary housing village near several major studios frequented by people in the entertainment business.

Three hours later, two teenagers from Illinois who were visiting the Oakwood turned themselves in to police and admitted starting the blaze, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. The boys, ages 16 and 17, were detained by LAPD officers on suspicion of reckless setting of a fire and then released to their parents’ custody, pending possible prosecution.

“They were old enough to know what they were doing,” said Villaraigosa, adding that the boys first told their parents about setting the fire before together calling police.

The fire caused no injuries or damage to structures, but the smoke cast a wide shadow over portions of the San Fernando Valley. It also snarled traffic and forced some businesses to shut off their air conditioning.

“It was down to ground level. Employees were coughing,” said Israel Aviles, manager of the Smokehouse restaurant, across from Warner Bros. “Everybody’s eyes were watering.”

The blaze sent a massive smoke plume rising above the Hollywood sign, visible from downtown L.A., Santa Monica, Long Beach and beyond.

Flames came within a ridge of the Hollywood sign and Mt. Lee radio transmitters. But the Los Angeles Fire Department flew in firefighters to the mountaintop, where they refueled water-dropping helicopters that battled the flames along with ground crews.

The brush fire season is usually October to January, but the dry conditions -- L.A. has recorded less than 3 inches of rain since July -- have contributed to major fires well into March.

“It’s going to be a dangerous fire season due to the lack of rain,” said city Fire Capt. Antoine McKnight.

And weather forecasters say there’s no relief in sight.

“If you look at the fuel conditions, it looks almost like what you see in the late summer,” said David Gomberg, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. “This time of the year, things are normally moistened up. But we haven’t had the rains, so the fuel levels are high.”

The pall of smoke and glare of the flames caused traffic to jolt to a halt and sent some residents scrambling to wet down their homes -- even many miles away.

Ashes blew as far away as Studio City, as knots of people gathered on sidewalks and street corners to gape at the huge plumes of smoke hanging over the Valley.

“It’s the most smoke I’ve ever seen,” said Claudia Wells, owner of a shop on Ventura Boulevard. “I’ve lived here 16 years, and I’ve seen a lot of fires. I’ve even watched a house burn down, and I’ve never seen smoke like this.”

The fire came within 50 feet of the Oakwood parking lot. Apartment maintenance workers wetted down the hillside. Management turned on sprinklers on the roof of the apartments and on the hillside.

Travis Caldwell, an 18-year-old actor and Oakwood resident who has appeared on several Nickelodeon shows, said he was walking from his apartment to the clubhouse when he saw two maintenance workers yelling to a security guard to call 911. Soon firefighters appeared behind the complex, at first calmly walking and then sprinting up the hill, Caldwell said.

Later, he saw a firefighter holding a grocery bag walking toward a supervisor. Caldwell said he was only a few feet away when the firefighter told another firefighter “these are the fireworks” while holding up the bag.

Authorities interviewed the two teenagers Friday night at the Hollywood station.

“It was an irresponsible act,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Hilmann.

Los Angeles Police Department sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they were not sure whether the teens set the fire on purpose or whether it happened accidentally as they were playing in the brush.

Many Oakwood residents took the fire in stride.

Two students from the New York Film Academy were filming a drama at one end of the Oakwood apartments when one of them calmly said, “Oh, there’s a small fire” at the top of the hill.

Moments later, one of the students, Victorino Lee Sanghee, went outside to check out the fire and noticed it had grown to engulf the hillside and was moving downhill “really fast.”

“Everyone was sort of freaked out,” Sanghee said. So naturally, they “filmed the whole thing.”

The fire seemed to transfix parts of Los Angeles.

On Ventura, Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, people walked outside stores and apartments to watch the plumes of dark smoke. Many snapped photos, some of which were quickly placed on various photo-sharing websites. Traffic on several freeways and streets slowed as people dealt with smoke and just kept their eyes on the fire.

“It’s quite bizarre,” said Tida Sripanich, 20, a photography student who was shooting the fire from a nearby park. “We never thought we’d see a wildfire in this part of town.”

Gary Payton, 65, and daughter Bridgette, 34, were at Forest Lawn at the time the fire broke out.

She said her father joked about their predicament. “Dad looked around at the flames and said, ‘Well, that saves on the cremation expense.’ ”

Edward Brady, 63, and Isobel Brady, 60, tourists from Nottingham, England, were also at the cemetery to put flowers on the grave of a friend’s brother. They said they had no car and had trouble getting a taxi through police and fire lines.

“We’re just silly tourists caught in it all,” Edward said. “I was surprised at how fast [the fire] moved. The smoke increased as the flames came closer.”

Taxi driver Ararat Vartanian said it took him more than half an hour to get through to the cemetery. When he pulled up in front of the park, ashes were falling on his cab.

“The cops were saying, ‘You can’t get in,’ and I said I had people waiting,” Vartanian said.

Times staff writers Tony Barboza, Sharon Bernstein, Andrew Blankstein and Francisco Varta-Orta contributed to this report.