2,000 Homes Evacuated in SoCal Fires

Nearly 500 firefighters battle six raging blazes fueled by high winds and dried-out brush which have scorched nearly 5,000 acres of land near Los Angeles.

July 30, 2010

PALMDALE, Calif. — Firefighters plan an aggressive air attack at first light Friday against a fast-moving wildfire that exploded in northern Los Angeles County, chewing through more than 4,500 acres of dry brush, forcing thousands of evacuations and burning at least three structures.

Photo: A water dropping helicopter flies in front of the large column of smoke before landing in Kernville, Calif. during work on the fire in California's Sequoia National Forest. The fire started on Monday afternoon. (Bakersfield Californian)

There is zero containment, authorities said.

Three water-dropping helicopters and hundreds of firefighters worked through the night to get ahead of the blaze which broke out around 3 p.m. Thursday on the northern side of State Route 14. By early evening the winds picked up and pushed the flames north and east toward Palmdale, in the suburbs of Los Angeles County's inland desert, authorities said.

In addition to the Los Angeles County fire, also called the Crown fire, authorities stemmed two other smaller, less destructive blazes in the area, the Los Angeles Times reported.

'Insane looking'

Orange flames exploded through dry grasses, jumped roads and sped across the rural foothills that connect Los Angeles to the high desert.

"Man, it looks bad outside. If I step outside the restaurant, it's just insane looking — black and orange smoke and helicopters going through, dropping water," said Jamie Karschamroon, 29, the co-owner of Crazy Otto's diner in Leona Valley.

Authorities evacuated more than 2,000 people in the Leona Valley area and Rancho Vista as 500 firefighters worked to contain flames in the Palmdale area and protect homes in the path of the wildfires.

"A fire of this magnitude is generating its own environment, with winds to 20 miles per hour," Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Matt Levesque said. "Fifty-foot flames are not out of the ordinary."

Photo: A firefighter looks on as a fast moving wildfire approaches Elizabeth Lake Road in the Leona Valley near Palmdale, Calif. on Thursday. Mandatory evacuations were issued for the community of Leona Valley on Thursday evening. (Dan Steinberg / AP)

He told the Los Angeles Times that no injuries or fatalities have been reported in connection with the fires.

Two outbuildings and a hay house were destroyed by the flames. The burned structures were located on the northern side of the valley, which the Los Angeles times notes is an agricultural area known for cherry orchards and vineyards.

KCAL-TV showed at least two structures fully engulfed in flames near where the blaze jumped a road and sent firefighters and sheriff's deputies scattering.

"It's fuel and topography driven, but when fires have this much fuel and burn this hot they make their own wind," Levesque said.

State Route 14 snakes through the San Gabriel Mountains, connecting Los Angeles to the high desert. Angeles National Forest lands lie on either side. The area is west of the 250-square-mile zone scorched by last summer's Station Fire, the largest wildland blaze in county history.

Containment lines

Further north in Kern County, good weather helped firefighters build containment lines around two wildfires that destroyed homes in remote mountain communities earlier in the week.

A 2-1/2-square-mile blaze near Tehachapi on the western edge of the Mojave Desert was 44 percent contained after burning about 30 homes and other structures in a scattered community called Old West Ranch.

About 200 firefighters contained another blaze at 350 acres, Levesque said. A third fire was stopped at 30 acres.

Photo: An inmate crew marches to the fire at Old West Ranch near Tehachapi, Calif., Wednesday, July 28. (Alex Gallardo / AP)

The community nonetheless remained evacuated, affecting about 150 people, said John Buchanan, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The blaze erupted Tuesday afternoon and rapidly swept through an area where Kern County fire authorities say there is no history of any fires on record, meaning vegetation hadn't burned there in more than a century.

To the north, a fire that destroyed eight residences and a few outbuildings as it spread across about 25 square miles of the Sequoia National Forest in the Sierra Nevada was 20 percent contained, authorities said.

The cause of the fires is under investigation.

With the state’s history of wildfires, officials have urged residents to take proactive steps to diminish risk of spreading the fires, the Los Angeles Times reported. Tips included creating a buffer zone around homes by clearing brush, heeding official warnings indicating that conditions are ideal for fires to take hold and making sure that the street address on homes is clearly visible to emergency personnel. 

The planting of ornamental shrubs is also an issue, the paper reported, as the non-native species are often not fire resistant.