Grappling with wildfires, Los Angeles authorities warn of challenging 24 hours ahead

Xinhua
The Los Angeles City Emergency Management Department sent a wildfire emergency text message to mobile phone users in the region Wednesday night.
Xinhua

The Los Angeles City Emergency Management Department sent a wildfire emergency text message to mobile phone users in the region Wednesday night, asking them to stay alert so that they could evacuate if necessary.

"Strong winds overnight creating extreme fire danger. Stay alert. Listen to authorities," the text message said.

"It's critically important for people that live in wildland areas that you sleep with one eye open tonight," Los Angeles county fire chief Daryl Osby said at a press conference Wednesday.

"We're expecting some extreme wind," Osby said Wednesday night, adding that gusts in some areas were expected to be up to 80 miles (about 136 km) per hour.

Kate Roypirom, a resident of Porter Ranch, a community 17 km west of Sylmar which has been suffering from a rapidly-spreading wildfire since Tuesday morning, said she snapped into emergency action on receiving the alert.

"I packed the important things... (and) was ready to evacuate. My friend let us ... stay in their house," the 42-year-old told Xinhua.

The brush fire near Sylmar, 42 km northwest of downtown Los Angeles, burned down 30 houses and by Wednesday night was threatening about 2,500 more homes, despite 1,700 firefighters battling the blaze for more than 36 hours.

Officials said Wednesday that the fire, dubbed the Creek Fire, had been 5 percent contained. It scorched 12,605 acres (51 square km) and forced 100,000 people to be evacuated.

"We are maintaining a heightened presence to patrol for hot spots, but with the (Santa Ana fire) expected to pick up again tonight, everyone has to be extra vigilant," a Los Angeles Police Department detective, identifying himself only as Detective Donahue, told Xinhua.

Santa Ana experiences strong and extremely dry, down-slope winds that originate inland and often affect coastal southern California in fall and winter. They are known as "devil winds" for fanning regional wildfires.

Another wildfire, called the Skirball Fire, which broke out much closer to Los Angeles downtown, was also contained 5 percent as of Wednesday night.

Kate Collins, who lives near Sun Valley, told Xinhua that her house survived last night but she was still far from feeling relieved. "It's the winds that get you," she pointed out. "A single ember can travel miles on these 60 mile-(96.56 km)-per-hour gusts, and fall to earth where you least expect it."

Her neighbor Darlene Tiberi was worried because of her age. "I'm 85. How am I going to get to safety if the fire reaches my house? I can't sleep at night worrying about it," she said.

The Skirball Fire blazed near the Skirball Cultural Center and the Getty Center, 25 km west of downtown and only 4 km west of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

The UCLA canceled all classes Tuesday afternoon in response to heavy traffic there diverted from Skirball and also decided to put off a basketball match with the University of Montana scheduled for Wednesday night.

However, the campus is not yet included in the evacuation zone. "No evacuations are anticipated," the UCLA said in a message to students.

A third brush fire dubbed Thomas erupted Monday night in Santa Paula of Ventura County, 110 km northwest of Los Angeles downtown. By 6:00 p.m. Wednesday (0200 GMT Thursday) it had gutted roughly 90,000 acres (364.2 square km), carving out a path of destruction that stretched more than 10 miles (17 km) to the Pacific beachfront communities.

"We stand a good chance of a challenging night and day tomorrow," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesperson Tim Chavez told the press, adding that there's potential for fire growth on the northwest side. "It's going to be a difficult night and day."

Hosang Parminda, a Santa Paula resident, described how some community members tried to fight the fire. "I've lived in this neighborhood for 35 years," he told Xinhua. "When the fire came our way, we didn't leave our house... My neighbors and I fought it with garden hoses and helped firefighters save our neighborhood."

His neighbor, who identified himself only by his surname Sparkis, sounded ready to throw in the towel. "It's too much," Sparkis told Xinhua. "This is the second time in four months we've had to evacuate our home. It's time to get out of here."

Thousands of residents in Ojai, a vacation town 14 km northwest of Santa Paula, received an emergency evacuation order about 9:00 p.m. Wednesday (0500 GMT Thursday).

State fire officials said about 12,000 homes remain threatened by flames in entire southern California, while 50,000 people have been forced to flee. 

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