The U.S. Forest Service is investigating the cause of a small, fast-moving brush fire that broke out Thursday, threatening homes near the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club before being extinguished by a massive coordinated response from more than 100 firefighters.
Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Sean Ferguson said the half-acre blaze was called in at around 11:45 a.m. by several people who saw flames near the edge of the country club’s golf course near a thick brush area, moving toward a home on the 5300 block of Godbey Drive.
“Fire was running toward this home — it had an exposed wooden deck, and we were concerned that wooden deck would catch and then transition into the home,” Ferguson said at the scene of the fire.
La Cañada resident Bella Kalnins was taking a walk on Godbey Drive, near her Starlight Heights Drive home, at the time the fire broke out and called 911 to report it had moved up into a tree and was quickly spreading from the golf course area toward homes in the Villa Cañada subdivision.
Kalnins was on scene Thursday afternoon as multiple units battled the hillside fire with help from two super scoopers and water-dropping helicopters, one of which landed temporarily on the 11th fairway of the golf course.
“I’ve been banging on all the doors to tell people to close their windows,” she said, adding that L.A. County Sheriff’s Department deputies arrived on scene just minutes after she called. “There were a bunch of little fires all over the place. I had to get to my neighbors who I knew were there.”
Winds blew embers and ash high into the sky as helicopters circled overhead, dripping water on residents who’d stepped out of their homes to watch the firefight and take pictures with their cellphones.
Only the residents at the home nearest the blaze were evacuated, Ferguson said. Surrounding homeowners were not ordered to evacuate, although sheriff’s deputies encouraged residents to be ready to leave the area at a moment’s notice.
“Many people here did not evacuate, and that was unwise,” the inspector added.
The fire was quickly contained as a reported 103 firefighters, including several inmate fire crews, doused the hillside and cut through thick vegetation in which smoldering embers continued to smoke for more than one hour.
La Cañada Flintridge Country Club President Randy Dreyfuss said Thursday a small grounds crew had been doing some landscaping when they noticed a small fire, just a few feet in area, burning near the 12th tee near some brush and called the Fire Department.
“It didn’t take long before it went into a tree, and all that brush started to go up. Then it started to cross the cart path to Villa Cañada,” he said. “Within minutes the whole hillside was on fire, and it was hot — you could feel the heat on your face.”
Dreyfuss ordered the last nine holes of the course to be closed and joined employees in an effort to spray the fire using the facility’s irrigation system. They were trying to protect the course when a super scooper plane rose up over the hill and doused them all with water.
“We heard it first. It came right over the trees and we all yelled, ‘run!’” he said, his hair still wet from the soaking.
While the cause of the fire is still being investigated, Dreyfuss said it’s possible a golfer may have been smoking and flicked a cigarette into the nearby brush.
“The most likely thing is somebody flipped a cigarette somewhere, and it smolders, and by the time it starts a fire the person is long gone,” he said, adding players are aware of the area’s high-fire risk and “no smoking” signs are posted everywhere. “We’re very grateful [firefighters] were here so quickly.”
As of Monday, the matter was still being investigated and no cause had been determined, according to U.S. Forest Service Spokesman Nathan Judy.