Roberto Delgado and his wife, Ninoschka Perez, were finishing their nightly rosary prayer Thursday when Perez screamed. Startled, Delgado looked out their second-story window and saw a patch of flame burning near the base of a tall electrical transmission tower on the steep hill behind their home on Saddle Ridge Road.
The Sylmar couple rushed downstairs and began hosing down their yard as powerful winds pushed the expanding fire toward their neighborhood. Delgado held the hose in one hand and his phone in the other — the Fire Department was on its way. By the time firefighters arrived, flames had formed a tunnel of fire, rising up on either side of a service road that runs up to the power lines.
Those flames, fueled by fierce Santa Ana winds, scorched a 7,900-acre path through the hills in the northwest San Fernando Valley over the next 48 hours, driving thousands from their homes and damaging or destroying at least 31 structures.
But the terror was short-lived. Though red flag warnings remained in effect until 6 p.m. Saturday, the hot Santa Ana winds weakened throughout the day and by late afternoon were replaced by cool onshore sea breezes and higher humidity levels. By Sunday morning, the fire was 41% contained.
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, after Sylmar residents, including Delgado, told news outlets that they saw a fire burning at the base of the transmission tower near Saddle Ridge Road, an area investigators are examining as a possible ignition point.
“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.”
Because high winds had been forecast that could topple or damage power lines, leading to out-of-control fires, Southern California Edison began turning off power to thousands of customers throughout the region as a precaution beginning Wednesday.
But the Sylmar area where the tower is located and the fire started was not included in the shutdown.
“We did not deenergize any power for the Saddleridge fire area,” said Edison spokeswoman Sally Jeun, who confirmed the tower was owned by the utility.
She cautioned it was too early to say what caused the fire.
“Determining the cause and origin of the fire is a lengthy process,” Jeun said. “Our priority right now is ensuring the safety of our customers, employees and first responders. SCE will fully cooperate with investigations.”
As residents returned to their homes Saturday, Los Angeles Fire Department arson investigators were continuing to inspect the scene to try to determine the fire’s origin. They declined to speak to reporters.
Delgado and Perez’s house offers a partial view of the tower. Several neighbors on Saddle Ridge Road said Saturday that they saw a wall of flames coming from that direction but couldn’t be sure of the source. They were too busy trying to evacuate.
Delgado and Perez fled with their 4-month-old retriever Bruno. Video footage from their home security camera shows wind-driven embers flying from the hill, over and past the house, forcing firefighters at one point to retreat to their trucks on Saddle Ridge Road.
By the time John Myint noticed the smoke and heat, firetrucks were crowding the road, making it hard to evacuate. He watched from his kitchen as half a dozen firefighters went to work on the blaze in his backyard.
Down the block, Michael Schnell called 911 at 9:03 p.m. and was in the car with his wife and dogs by 9:16 p.m. Unlike Delgado, Schnell and others couldn’t see exactly where the fire appeared to ignite — their views of the tower were obstructed by a hill. But they said the flames came from that direction.
Like others around her, Isabel Ramirez grabbed several hoses and started spraying everything down around her house. Embers were flying and the smoke made it hard to see. Firefighters were focused on getting up the hill in the direction of the power line, she said. One came over to her and told her that if she wasn’t going to evacuate, she needed to help.
“He said to me, ‘If you want to stay, stay, but if you see fire coming down the hill, get us right away,’” she said.
More than 1,000 firefighters battled the blaze, assisted by helicopters, amphibious fixed-wing “super scoopers” and ground crews with bulldozers. At least one air tanker blanketed the burning hillsides with fire retardant.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued emergency declarations. The governor’s office said it had obtained a federal grant to help offset the costs of fighting the Saddleridge fire and other blazes burning across the state.
Porter Ranch residents returned to Hampton Court on Saturday and walked up to one fire-damaged house to attach posters with messages of support to the parts of the structure that were still standing. “We’re hugging you,” read one blue sign. “We love you & are here for you,” promised another. Blackened wood debris littered the driveway.
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 the cul-de-sac said Saturday they were furious the Fire Department hadn’t come when they called in the predawn hours Friday. Jaime Castiel, who lives across the street and 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 used water he collected with buckets from his pool to put them out.
“Nobody came!” he said.
A group of neighbors relayed their concerns to David Ortiz, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department who was in the neighborhood Saturday. He said that 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 on their 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.”
Complaints about resource allocation are common with large, fast-moving fires such as this one, said Capt. Branden Silverman, an LAFD spokesman.
“When it’s so wind-driven, there’s never going to be enough resources to handle all the problems,” Silverman said. “Life safety and evacuations become the priority. We can’t protect all the structures.”
Authorities urged residents to heed mandatory evacuation orders for their own safety, instead of staying behind to try to protect their homes.
Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, one to his eye, while battling the blaze. A man in his late 50s died after suffering a heart attack while talking with firefighters early Friday, officials said.
Porter Ranch resident Richard Reel, 87, looked dazed as he sat quietly outside his home of 23 years and described the family heirlooms that he and his wife lost Friday when flames turned almost everything in their house to ash: a clock from 1887, a pedal sewing machine from the early 1920s, a couch more than 100 years old — now blackened and turned over haphazardly on the sidewalk in front of the house. Only a few items, including some clothes, trinkets and photographs, were saved.
“It was a pretty sick feeling,” he said upon returning to see the damage. “I had a lot of antiques handed down in my family. It’s just a sad feeling that you’ve lost a lot of stuff you can’t replace.”
The couple said they stayed home Thursday night because authorities never told them to evacuate. Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Hector Guzman confirmed Saturday that Reel’s house in the 11000 block of Eddleston Drive was just outside the evacuation zone and so there was no order to leave.
Reel said he and his wife were watching the news when he noticed that the palm tree in their yard had caught on fire.
“I told Shirley, ‘We’ve got to go, now,’” he said.
They returned to the remnants of their home Saturday morning. As they sat outside, neighbors came by to share condolences and offer support, including a space for their car in a garage.
“This is kind of the mecca of our family,” Robert, their son, said in describing his parents’ house that was a gathering place for birthday parties, Christmas and other celebrations. “This was their dream house.”
Shirley said she wants to rebuild. Richard said the question was too hard to think about.
“Probably,” he said, before hesitating and saying he wasn’t sure. “I can’t answer that question. Not yet.”
Times staff writers Richard Winton, Joseph Serna and Marisa Gerber contributed to this report.