Two sprawling wildfires tore through at least 4,500 acres in the San Gabriel Mountains on Monday, and only a canyon prevented the blazes from merging into one massive inferno, fire officials said.
The two brush fires broke out in Azusa and Duarte amid a blistering heat wave, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homes and at least 750 residents.
The first blaze, called the Reservoir fire, was reported about 11 a.m. at Highway 39 in the San Gabriel Mountains, said Andrew Mitchell, spokesman for the Angeles National Forest.
The fire was apparently ignited by a fatal car crash. A vehicle went over the side of the road and plunged to the bottom of a canyon near Morris Reservoir, said John Tripp, deputy chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
About 300 U.S. Forest Service crew members were tackling the 1,500-acre blaze near Azusa as water-dropping helicopters aided.
Azusa police issued mandatory evacuation orders for residents in the communities of Rainbow Ranch and Mountain Cove, the latter a gated neighborhood with about 320 homes. U.S. Forest officials said Camp Williams, structures near Glendora Mountain Road and San Gabriel Canyon were also evacuated.
More than an hour later, a second blaze, dubbed the Fish fire, erupted near Brookridge Road and Opal Canyon Road in Duarte, said Capt. Keith Mora, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
"It's moving fast," he said. By 9 p.m., the blaze had spread to about 3,000 acres, according to the L.A. County Fire Department.
Firefighters were working under "extremely dry conditions, over 100-degree temperatures" and 12- to 15-mph gusts as they battled the Fish fire, Mora said.
Flames were moving rapidly uphill and near power lines. So far, there was no containment of the two fires.
"The biggest challenge is this is extremely rugged terrain and it's not very accessible, so we're really having to rely on our aircraft," Tripp said, adding that fire crews were also surveying which ridges would be accessible for bulldozers and hand crews.
Evacuation orders went out for nearly 700 homes in Duarte, including homes near Encanto Parkway and Brookridge Road.
Sheriff's deputies went door to door telling residents to evacuate, concerned that winds may shift the Fish fire toward homes in Duarte. Along Melcanyon Road near Deerlane Drive, some residents frantically packed their cars, but others stood outside, watching the nearby blaze.
Jim Renella said he planned to stay at the home that he and his wife have owned for more than 20 years. He recalled how neighbors in 1988 fended off the embers from a massive brush fire.
He conceded that he would evacuate under certain conditions.
"If one of those trees catches fire," Renella said, pointing to his neighbors' trees up the road, "then we're out."
Vanja Primorac, 26, was trying to convince her 59-year-old mother to leave her home next door. Primorac, who lives in Los Feliz, was shopping at the Costco in Azusa this afternoon when the fire started to spread.
"It happened so quickly — I literally walked outside of Costco and was like, 'Oh my god, that's massive,' " she said of the flames. "I remember thinking, 'That's terrifying.' "
The Red Cross, together with the L.A. County Fire Department and the city of Duarte, had opened an evacuation center at a recreation facility in the 1600 block of Huntington Drive in Duarte.
By midafternoon, few had arrived at the evacuation center.
Valerie Kiernicki, 59, had been sewing at her home near Fish Canyon about 1:30 p.m. when she heard helicopters overhead and went outside to see what was happening.
"And I saw flames about 25 feet in front of me," she said. "I started packing and panicking."
She and her husband grabbed their computer and safe deposit box, and she brought her two cats to the evacuation center. No official called or came to Kiernicki's door telling her to evacuate, as the area was not officially under evacuation orders.
But Kiernicki was set on leaving.
"The fire was just too close to me," she said. "The flames were right there. Smoke was going up and when the ash landed, I didn't want to be standing there."
The fires triggered a smoke advisory from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Smoke from the fires could be seen from Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in Baldwin Hills.
A red flag warning has been issued for Southern California through Tuesday morning. Temperatures are expected to hover in the triple digits in Los Angeles and remain in the 90s near the Sherpa fire in Santa Barbara County, authorities said. That blaze is the largest active fire in California, according to state and federal data.
In San Diego County, a wildfire fueled by dry brush and sweltering temperatures has scorched 7,500 acres just north of the U.S.-Mexico border and prompted mandatory evacuations for the entire east county community of Potrero. The fire was about 5% contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
About 25 homes south of State Route 94 and east of State Route 188, near where the fire initially sparked about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, were also evacuated.
The so-called Border fire has destroyed four outbuildings and left three firefighters with minor injuries. The cause is under investigation.
The National Weather Service warned that widespread triple-digit heat along with low humidity would bring an extended period of potential fire danger across Southern California through at least Tuesday.
Gusting winds were expected to last through Tuesday evening for Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
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11:33 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from those evacuating from the neighborhoods.
9:40 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the growth of the Fish fire.
7:48 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the Border fire in San Diego County.
7:22 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details on evacuation orders and the scope of the fire.
5:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the evacuation center and the size of the fires.
2:47 p.m.: This article was updated with new details about the Fish and Reservoir fires.
2:30 p.m.: This article was updated with new details about the Fish fire and evacuation orders.
1:48 p.m.: This article was updated with new details about the Reservoir fire and evacuation orders.
12:54 p.m.: This article was updated with new details about the Duarte fire.