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Fire Ravages North L.A. County

Aired August 27, 2001 - 16:38   ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Take a look at your screen now of this wildfire in northern Los Angeles County. We mentioned it was threatening structures. You can see it's threatening this home right now. Firefighters are on the scene. A truck is in that driveway there. Seventy-five firefighters, as I mentioned. Fifteen acres have burned already in an area near I-5. And we have the phone with us, Ed Martinez of the L.A. County Fire Department.

Mr. Martinez, as you tell us about this fire, we're pretty much seeing the whole story. This looks massive.

ED MARTINEZ, LOS ANGELES COUNTY FIRE DEP'T.: The fire currently is very fast-moving in nature. It's burning in medium-to-heavy brush in very steep terrain. The winds, as you can see, are making the firefighting efforts very tough on firefighters. Due to the fact that the fire is burning around homes, we are putting most of our personnel around those hopes to protect them.

We have an updated acreage count of about 150 acres at this point. We now have over 100 firefighters at the scene. We are being assisted by helicopters in the area, county fire department helicopters, approximately four of them. I understand we also have a unit from the U.S. Forest Service there as well. This is an ongoing incident. The fire is currently burning out of control. Do not have any reports of any injuries as of yet and the total acreage, of course, will probably continue to grow at this point.

ALLEN: I tell you, the viewers who are watching this can appreciate what firefighters are going through, Mr. Martinez. From the picture we just saw of huge flames in this home's backyard and the helicopter dumping water there. It looks like in a moment the flames have moved elsewhere and some have been doused there behind this home. A terrible situation, though, but these firefighters are used to dealing with these conditions.

MARTINEZ: Firefighters are currently under an extreme amount of pressure. As you can see, the flames are intense. They are doing the best they can to protect property, putting themselves in extreme danger. The winds and the terrain is making things even worse, and due to the fact that this fire is out of control, it's going to make conditions even worse. We are encouraging anybody who is in that area, if they are in those homes, to stay in their homes, not to get out and clog the roads up by leaving, because what that will do is it will hamper firefighters from getting in there with the trucks. Stay in their homes, stay indoors, keeping shelter in there until the fire passes and firefighters can get to their homes to help protect them.

ALLEN: So this just started today.

MARTINEZ: That's correct. We had units originally dispatched about 12:45, so it's been going on for almost an hour now.

ALLEN: So people left their homes this morning with no idea that this would be the scene when they came home. Any idea how this started?

MARTINEZ: Currently we do not. The fire, of course, will be under investigation, not only during the fire, but after the fire as well.

ALLEN: As far as the winds go, what is the forecast there, whether Mother Nature is going to work with you or against you this afternoon in Los Angeles.

MARTINEZ: Well, this is actually the perfect time of day for the winds and the heat to line up to make firefighting at its worst time for a fire to start. Fires at this time of day normally will be assisted in burning by heat, the overhead sun, the temperature, of course, and the winds in that area. So until it gets later on in the day and the winds start shifting, the firefighters are going to have their hands full.

ALLEN: So you said 150 acres have burned already?

MARTINEZ: That was the last count that I have and that will be updated again shortly.

ALLEN: Tell us more about this area that we're seeing, as far as if there are -- we mentioned it was near I-5. Is this causing more traffic problems, traffic being diverted away from this area?

MARTINEZ: We do have CHP helping us with traffic control. This is burning southwest of the Castaic Lake recreation area, just off of Lake Hughes Road and the I-5 freeway. The fire is burning towards residential area, as you can see. It is somewhat rural. You do have some beautiful homes up in that area, but what makes firefighting efforts difficult is that people will stay in their homes until the very last minute, at which time they'll drive down some of these dirt roads which you can only get one car through. And as firefighters try to reach their homes, they can't, because the roads are full of cars. So we're encouraging people to leave if they can before firefighters get there. If not, stay there. Stay in their home.

ALLEN: And many of these homes, as we can see, surrounded by brush, but tell us about some of the efforts homeowners take in this area to keep their -- the yards around their homes cleared.

MARTINEZ: As always, we always encourage everyone to have strict brush clearance guidelines. With those, we ask the people to clear the brush around their home 75 to 100 feet, or even more, depending on the terrain in their area. So we can see why it's so important to keep that heavy brush cleared down using ornamental shrubs around their homes, green areas, grass, whatever they may have to keep the flames from getting dangerously close to their homes.

ALLEN: Ed, stand by. We'd like to talk with you some more. Again, that's Ed Martinez with the L.A. County Fire Department, telling us about this brushfire in Casaic, California. Incredible pictures of the efforts firefighters have under way now to keep homes from being destroyed.

We'll take a quick break. More in a moment.


ALLEN: Happening right now, we've got live pictures of a brush fire from northern Los Angeles County in the area Castaic, California. You can see the picture tells the whole story. Firefighters have their hands full. This huge brush fire started this afternoon in California. Many people, if you just were joining us a few moments ago, had already left for work and everything was fine. They're going to come home to this today if they can come home at all. Firefighter, about 75 of them are working this by land and by air. Helicopters making drops right in the nick of time. We were just watching a house with huge flames right behind this home, when a helicopter swept in and did two drops and flames dissipated and headed out elsewhere.

We were talking with Ed Martinez of the L.A. County Fire Department that said 150 acres have burned already. And Ed pointed out that a big problem when this happens is people stay in their homes for too long and wait and try to save their homes, you can understand that. But then as you can see, there are just narrow dirt roads leading up to some of these homes, and as people try to head out, they conflict with the firefighters trying to head up.

We're watching these huge flames to see if they're going to engulf this truck right here. We have had them, as I mentioned, just licking up against homes as well. Many homes are threatened right now in this area of Los Angeles County. And we will continue to watch and hope that firefighters can save people's homes this afternoon. These pictures courtesy of KTTV. We heard from Mr. Martinez, the fire department, that the winds, as many people who live out in California can know, the winds can be ferocious and change direction in a heartbeat. And this is what firefighters are dealing with this afternoon.

Again, this is in Castaic, California. This is northern Los Angeles County. Seventy-five firefighters on the scene. You can bet probably anyone who's in that area is there fighting this one.

Again, the only information we have is that 150 acres have burned. I'm not sure how many acres are under fire, burning right now. We don't even know if any structures have been lost during these valiant efforts to save homes and businesses. We do know the last word from the fire department was there have been no injuries. We are happy to report that. Again, this just started this afternoon in this, so we're happy to report that.

But again, this just started this afternoon so people that live in this area who are just finding out about this, I can imagine, are panicked right now wondering about their home. And it might have some people there as well scrambling to get out of their homes this afternoon.

We'll take a break. We'll have more coverage after this.


ALLEN: Breaking news this hour out of northern Los Angeles County in Castaic, California, a huge brush fire has broken out there this afternoon fanned by some ferocious winds there today. Some upwards of 75 firefighters on the scene trying to save people's homes. And we'll find out how they're doing in that effort.

Ed Martinez joins us again with the L.A. County Fire Department. Ed, have their been any homes lost in this fire today?

MARTINEZ: I currently have not heard of any homes at this point. I know there are a lot of structures that are threatened. Firefighters are doing the best they can to get into those areas where there is a lot of flame to keep those homes from burning. I have not heard of any burning at this time.

ALLEN: So no injuries to report either?

MARTINEZ: We have not got an update as far as any injuries, either to civilians or firefighters.

ALLEN: Well, we have been seeing some amazing pictures of what they're up against there today. Earlier we saw some flames whipping up the backside of a home, so very close, and those flames going out it seemed just nanoseconds before perhaps engulfing a house.

How do firefighters know where to go and to get around? I take it they study where all the homes are and the little roads that lead to these homes?

MARTINEZ: That is correct. You hit it right on the head. The firefighters do know where and where not to go on these roads. They know where to position their vehicles and where not to. There are certain areas that, of course, the fire is going to burn hotter and faster, in the steep terrain. And so firefighters know not to stay in those areas.

This is extremely important to local area residents who do not know those areas, those roads not to travel. So we are asking those residents, if anybody is watching, to stay in your homes if you are there already. If you are not, if you're at work and you hear that this is going on in your area, not to drive up there because it's making it difficult for firefighters to get their fire trucks up there. And when they do, they don't need to be stopped by people coming out of the area and getting themselves in a bad position on those roads.

ALLEN: This is Castaic, California. There doesn't seem to be a lot of homes in this area. Are there? MARTINEZ: This is a general rural area. They are building it up with a lot of homes. There's a tract of homes, as you can see there on the screen. Because of the fact there is steep terrain, there is some medium and heavy brush around those homes, it makes the firefighting efforts difficult because where you have the natural burn characteristics of fire to go, seems like there's always a home in the way nowadays where they're building in these hills.

So it does make it more difficult. The winds are making efforts harder also, putting the fire out. But we are assisted by four fire helicopters from the air, along with numerous ground crews. We have over 150 firefighters at the scene at this point.

ALLEN: That's a good thing. And, Ed, help us appreciate how quickly this fire came up there this afternoon.

MARTINEZ: I can tell you that the first unit on scene reported 15 acres of fire burning, medium brush. In less than five minutes, it had jumped to 100 acres. This is coupled with the fact that you've got the heat, you have the brush, the size of the brush, what we call a medium brush, and then the steep terrain. And what's happening is you get fire at the bottom of some of these canyons.

There's not necessarily any flames that shoot to the top of the canyons, but the top of the canyon is being preheated. So therefore before flames can even reach the top of the canyons, that brush is actually exploding before the flames get to it. So it's very fast- moving because of that. And because of that it makes it very dangerous for area residents who don't know what this means, and they can get themselves hurt.

ALLEN: Absolutely. Ed, we can't thank you enough. We know you're very busy.



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