A fast-moving brush fire raced across 475 acres in the Sepulveda Pass Wednesday, destroying four homes and damaging eleven others, forcing mandatory evacuations and prompting a rush-hour traffic nightmare closure of the San Diego (405) Freeway.
Seven hundred homes, including multi-million dollar residences, were evacuated.
Dozens of expensive hilltop homes were threatened as the Skirball Fire roared on the other side of the freeway from the Getty Center in the Sepulveda Pass.
All lanes of the freeway had been shut down in the area in both directions as the morning rush hour got under way, causing massive traffic delays on both sides of the main artery between the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles.
However, the southbound lanes were reopened around 9:30 a.m.
The afternoon rush hour was expected to be a tough commute, even though some northbound lanes which had been closed between the 10 and the 101 freeways have reopened. But two of the slow lanes near the fire scene are still closed because of the staging of firefighting equipment.
The blaze was reported at 4:52 a.m. on the east side of the freeway near Mulholland Drive, said Margaret Stewart of the Los Angeles Fire Department. By 3 p.m. the fire was estimated to have burned 475 acres and was 5 percent contained, though no injuries were reported, according to Los Angeles Fire Department Deputy Chief Charles Butler.
The fire was kept to the east side of the freeway and with winds easing, the forward movement of the fire was halted, but firefighters were in a desperate race to contain the blaze before expected evening gusts, Butler said.
“When the winds come up they’re going to come out of the northeast and they will want to push that fire across the 405 Freeway,” Butler said. “That’s why it’s critically important that we get some containment on this tonight.”
About 700 homes and an apartment building were evacuated. One elementary school was also evacuated, Butler said.
Some evacuations could be lifted in the evening, depending on winds and firefighters’ progress, he said.
The Getty Center and the nearby Skirball Center are both on the west side of the freeway, but the fire was threatening homes toward the top of the hill on the east side.
The area is in the vicinity of the devastating 1961 “Bel Air fire” that destroyed about 500 homes. That blaze destroyed about 500 homes and led to various policy changes, including a prohibition on wood-shingle roofs and the strict requirement to remove brush from around properties.
The Getty Center and the nearby Skirball Center did not appear to be threatened. Both were closed for the day, as was Santa Monica College and all schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district.
The fire threatened homes toward the top of the hill on the east side of the freeway. Four homes were destroyed and two others may have been damaged, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a roughly 9:30 a.m. briefing, but more structures could be seen burning as the fire continued its march.
Shortly after 6 a.m., mandatory evacuations were ordered for Moraga Drive, Linda Flora Drive, and Casiano Road, down to Bellagio Road, according to the LAFD. The evacuation order was later expanded, covering a large area bounded by Mulholland Drive to the north, Sunset Boulevard to the south, the 405 to the west and Roscomare Road on the east.
The exception to the evacuation order was the Bel Air Crest housing development, which was not threatened, Garcetti said.
About 100 officers from the Los Angeles Police Department were sent to the neighborhood to handle evacuation orders, said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.
Citywide, about 600 officers were assigned to coordinate security and various “firefighting events,” Beck said. The ongoing Creek Fire in the Sylmar area has scorched more than 11,000 acres.
About 500 firefighters were sent to battle the Skirball Fire, including 350 from the LAFD. Other agencies assisting including the U.S. Forest Service. Six fixed-wing aircraft and a number of helicopters were deployed to the scene, Garcetti said.
“These are days that break your heart; but these are also days that show the resilience of our city,” Garcetti said.
LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas noted that red flag conditions are expected to remain in effect at least through Friday, with gusting Santa Ana winds presenting a continuing danger of rapidly spreading blazes.
The fire was zero percent contained as of Wednesday morning, Terrazas said. Fifty-two fire engines were deployed to the scene. Winds were about 15 mph. Terrazas urged people to monitor news broadcasts and social media, including www.LAFD.org.
Evacuation centers have been established at Delano Recreation Center, 15100 Erwin St., Van Nuys; Balboa RC, 17015 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys; Sherman Oaks RC, 14201 Huston St., Sherman Oaks; and Westwood RC, 1350 Sepulveda Blvd., Westwood.
After the fire began, the northbound lanes of the 405 Freeway were closed at Bel Air Crest Road all the way back to Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles. Firefighting crews set up on the southbound side of the 405 to prevent the fire from jumping the freeway, and northbound vehicles were being turned back.
Shortly before 7 a.m., the California Highway Patrol closed the entire 405 Freeway between the Ventura (101) Freeway and the Santa Monica (10) Freeway, along with on-ramps and off-ramps and freeway transition roads in the affected area. The closure led to massive congestion on many streets in the San Fernando Valley and in West Los Angeles.
About 9 a.m., the southbound freeway was reopened, but some onramps and offramps remained closed in the area, as was a section of Mulholland Drive, the CHP reported.
Stewart said officers from the Los Angeles Police Department were arriving in the neighborhood to handle any potential evacuation orders.
More than 125 city firefighters were on scene and the LAFD was being assisted with an additional helicopter from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, according to Stewart.
She said the fire was moving uphill and was “topography driven” and not wind-driven.
All northbound lanes of the 405 were closed at Bel Air Crest Road. Firefighting crews were setting up on the southbound side of the 405 to prevent the fire from jumping the freeway, and northbound vehicles were being turned back.
—City News Service
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