In Silverado Canyon, a new cliffhanger

Firefighter Tony Masiel hoses down a hot spot early today in Modjeska Canyon in Orange County.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

At dusk this evening, the Santiago fire was burning “hard and aggressive” along the ridgelines of the Santa Ana Mountains and threatening Silverado Canyon and its 750 homes.

Fire authorities said the fate of Silverado Canyon depends on whether the favored onshore winds continue to blow.

“If the wind stays normal, everything will be fine,” said Mike Rohde, a battalion chief with the Orange County Fire Authority. If not, it will be a “totally different story.”


Pat Antrim, another battalion chief and a Silverado Canyon resident for 46 years, concurred.

“If the wind shifts and it turns into a firestorm, we have no chance, no chance at all,” Antrim said. “We just don’t.”

Antrim said he’s heading up a team that will stay in the canyon throughout the night.

“Even if we lose the entire canyon, I will know that we did everything we could,” he said. “There’s not going to be any second-guessing.”

The Santiago fire has raged into the rugged Cleveland National Forest throughout the day, burning up the slopes of the Santa Ana Mountains and threatening to cross over to Riverside County.

As onshore winds pushed a wall of black smoke over the mountains and into Riverside County, firefighters were considering building a firebreak by using bulldozers to link the various mountain roads in the area.

“We still haven’t been able to take the offensive, but we’re hoping to do so today,” said Louis Sandoval, with the Southwest Area Incident Management Team.


Firefighters in eastern Orange County had so far kept the 25,000-acre fire from reaching homes in Trabuco and Live Oak canyons. In nearly deserted Trabuco Canyon, a dozen fire engines took positions, ready for battle.

Buck Wickham, operations chief with the Orange County Fire Authority, called the Trabuco and Live Oak canyons “a box of matches ready to go.”

Crews said they were being helped by several factors, including lower temperatures, higher humidity, onshore winds, more personnel and 10 helicopters and four water-dropping airplanes.

About 1,100 firefighters are now fighting the Santiago blaze, nearly double the staffing of earlier this week. More than 200 of them, along with bulldozer teams, are trying to shore up a firebreak near the ridgeline that separates Orange and Riverside counties. They are working to clear an eight-to-10-mile stretch of a fire road built in the 1930s. If the flames jump the break, firefighters said, the blaze could threaten the community of Lake Elsinore.

“We’ve never sent a fire to Riverside County yet,” said Rick Reeder, battalion chief with the Fire Authority.

Meanwhile, Orange County authorities appealed to the public to help them catch the arsonist who set the fire Sunday evening near Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon roads. Officials were offering a $150,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction.


“The FBI will bring to bear all of its national resources ... to make sure that we track, apprehend and put this person or persons behind bars where they belong,” said FBI Special Agent Herb Brown.

The FBI has 20 agents working on the case. The agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives will employ cause and origin experts and behavioral scientists.

“We’ve had 250 tips,” Sheriff Michael S. Carona said. “None have led to anybody we believe to be the suspect in this case.”

The fire started on the Irvine side of Santiago Canyon Road at 6 p.m. Sunday. Though officials previously said there were three points of origin, today they said there were only two.

Within 15 minutes of the report of the fire, the blaze had spread three miles, officials said.

“The person or people who did this are exceptionally lucky or they have some knowledge of when they can do the most damage when you set a fire,” Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather said.


The Santiago fire grew rapidly Wednesday, with officials reporting last night that they had lost ground and that containment had fallen to 30% from 50%, firefighters’ victories in hemming it in undone. The number of homes destroyed stood at 14. Modjeska Canyon suffered the brunt of the destruction.

The fire authority has released the following addresses of 13 of the destroyed homes: 28564, 28562 and 28522 Williams Canyon Road; 28331, 28040, 16956 and 28456 Modjeska Canyon Road; 28012, 28452 and 28041 Modjeska Grade Road; 18691 Country Home Road; 17286 Baum Canyon; and 17382 Canyon Heights Drive.

Phil Buller, a veteran firefighter with Station 16 in the canyon, said this morning that the hillsides had “all burned, but no more homes had been lost.”

A CHP officer this morning stopped motorists on Santiago Canyon Road and said the FBI was not allowing anyone through.

All schools were closed today in the Capistrano and Saddleback Valley districts, as was Silverado Elementary near the fires and several private schools. All Irvine schools will be closed Friday. Santiago Canyon College and the South Orange County Community College District’s three campuses canceled classes until Monday. High school football games and other athletic events have also been called off through Monday, and Yorba Linda’s Fiesta Days has been canceled.


Times staff writers Jennifer Delson, Seema Mehta and My-Thuan Tran contributed to this report.