Aided by favorable weather conditions, firefighters continued Sunday to make significant progress in their battle against the 7,900-acre Saddleridge fire that scorched the hills of the northern San Fernando Valley and forced the evacuation of thousands from their homes.
Cooler temperatures, onshore winds and higher humidity levels aided crews on their fourth day fighting the sprawling fire, which blackened hillsides from Sylmar to Porter Ranch, officials said. As of Sunday morning, the fire was 41% contained.
“We are prepared for any flareups as they occur,” Los Angeles Fire Capt. Branden Silverman said Saturday.
The fire has destroyed or damaged at least 31 structures, officials said.
The cause of the fire has not been determined, officials said. But investigators are checking on reports that flames were seen coming from a power line as the fire started Thursday night. Sylmar residents told KNBC and KABC that they saw a fire burning at the base of a transmission tower near Saddle Ridge Road, an area investigators are examining as a possible ignition point.
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The breakdown was one of several things that went wrong in the battle against what would become the most destructive fire in modern L.A. County history.
“We are aware of a story out there in the media from a witness who saw fire ... from a transmission tower,” Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said Friday night. “We believe that witness, and someone else who said something similar.”
Saddle Ridge Road resident Roberto Delgado, told The Times he saw an isolated patch of flames near the base of the tower Thursday night and called 911. Several neighbors said they too fled after seeing a wall of flames, but couldn’t identify the source.
The tower belongs to Southern California Edison and was energized Thursday night, said Edison spokeswoman Sally Jeun, who added it was too early to assign responsibility for the fire.
“Determining the cause and origin of the fire is a lengthy process. A priority right now is ensuring the safety of our customers, employees and first responders. SCE will fully cooperate with investigations,” she said Saturday.
Though the utility shut off power for thousands of customers beginning Wednesday specifically to lower the risk of destructive fires, the area where the fire started was not included in the shutdown.
“We did not deenergize any power for the Saddle Ridge fire area,” Jeun said.
As of Saturday morning about 870 Edison customers across four counties were still without power as a precaution, she said. Most are in Ventura County, though affected customers are also in Kern, L.A. and San Bernardino counties. After the Santa Ana wind event passes, crews must go out to check the power lines and ensure there’s no downed or damaged equipment before the lines can be reenergized, she said.
By 5 p.m. Saturday, fire officials had lifted all evacuation orders after clearing out about 23,000 homes the previous two days.
Some residents began returning to their homes Friday night and Saturday.
Others never left.
A Porter Ranch resident who identified himself as Harout, 56, stayed behind in his Hampton Court home Thursday night when the fire in the canyons nearby exploded. Harout, who asked that his last name be withheld for privacy, said that if he hadn’t stayed behind to try to protect his two-story house, it would have burned like that of his next-door neighbor. That family’s house is now almost completely charred. Blackened pieces of wood litter the driveway.
Around noon Saturday, neighbors came by to the burned house — the only home on the block that burned — and stuck posters with messages of support to the parts of the structure that were still standing. “We’re hugging you,” read one blue sign. Another said, “We love you & are here for you.”
A verse from the Book of Joshua inscribed above the wooden doorway had survived the flames: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Some residents on Harout’s cul-de-sac said on Saturday they were furious that the Fire Department hadn’t come when they called in the predawn hours on Friday.
Jaime Castiel, who lives across the street and also stayed behind to try to protect his house, said he called 911 three times — at 1:38, 1:55 and 2:02 a.m. His backyard had lit up with flames and he went to his pool to collect buckets of water to put it out.
“Nobody came!” he said.
A group of neighbors relayed their concerns to David Ortiz, a spokesman with the Los Angeles Fire Department who was in the neighborhood on Saturday. He said he would forward their information to their City Council member and that an investigation would be conducted to see how long it took firefighters to arrive to the street.
“We have to triage, we have to figure out where we have to place these people, where we have to place these resources,” Ortiz told them. “We’d love to put a firetruck in every cul-de-sac, in every neighborhood.”
Authorities recommend that residents heed mandatory evacuation orders for their own safety, instead of staying behind to try to protect their homes.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom both issued emergency declarations. The governor’s office said it has obtained a federal grant to help offset the costs of fighting the Saddleridge fire and others in the state.
Two firefighters suffered minor injuries while battling the blaze, one to his eye, and a man in his late 50s died after suffering a heart attack while talking with firefighters early Friday, officials said.
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The Saddleridge fire broke out about 9 p.m. Thursday on the north side of the 210 Freeway in Sylmar. It has since at times forced shutdowns of portions of the 210, 5, 405, 14 and 118 freeways. Except for some truck routes and a few onramps and offramps, all freeways were reopened by Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, the 1,000-acre Sandalwood fire in Riverside County was 77% contained, officials said. The fire has burned more than 70 structures, mostly mobile homes, and claimed two lives. Two smaller fires in Riverside County — the Wolf and Reche fires — were almost fully contained Sunday morning.
Farther north, the Briceburg fire in Mariposa County was at 5,500 acres as of Sunday morning with 60% containment.