LOS ANGELES – All evacuation orders were lifted Saturday afternoon in the northwest San Fernando Valley as firefighters continued to make progress battling the 7,500 acre-Saddleridge fire that had shut down freeways and sent thousands fleeing from their homes.
Slightly cooler temperatures and lighter winds aided crews on their third day fighting the fire, which blackened hillsides from Porter Ranch to Sylmar, officials said. As of Saturday afternoon, the fire was 19% contained.
Red flag warnings remained in effect until 6 p.m. Saturday, but Santa Ana winds were expected to be replaced by onshore sea breezes by late afternoon, officials said. Humidity levels ranged from 20% down to 5% within the fire zone.
“We are prepared for any flareups as they occur,” Los Angeles Fire Capt. Branden Silverman said Saturday.
The fire has destroyed or damaged at least 31 structures, officials said.
The cause of the fire has not been determined, officials said. But investigators are checking on reports that flames were seen coming from a power line as the fire started Thursday night, after Sylmar residents told KNBC and KABC that they saw a fire burning at the base of a transmission tower near Saddle Ridge Road, an area investigators are examining as a possible ignition point.
“We are aware of a story out there in the media from a witness who saw fire ... from a transmission tower,” Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said Friday night. “We believe that witness, and someone else who said something similar.”
Saddle Ridge Road resident Roberto Delgado told the Los Angeles Times he saw an isolated patch of flames near the base of the tower Thursday night and called 911. Several neighbors said they too fled after seeing a wall of flames, but couldn’t identify the source.
The tower belongs to Southern California Edison and was energized Thursday night, said Edison spokeswoman Sally Jeun, who added it was too early to assign responsibility for the fire.
“Determining the cause and origin of the fire is a lengthy process. A priority right now is ensuring the safety of our customers, employees and first responders. SCE will fully cooperate with investigations,” she said Saturday.
Although the utility shut off power for thousands of customers beginning Wednesday specifically to lower the risk of destructive fires, the area where the fire started was not included in the shutdown.
“We did not deenergize any power for the Saddle Ridge fire area,” Jeun said.
As of Saturday morning about 870 Edison customers across four counties were still without power as a precaution, she said. Most are in Ventura County, though affected customers are also in Kern, L.A. and San Bernardino counties. After the Santa Ana wind event passes, crews must go out to check the power lines and ensure there’s no downed or damaged equipment before the lines can be reenergized, she said.
By 5 p.m. Saturday, fire officials had lifted all evacuation orders after clearing out about 23,000 homes over the last two days.
Some residents began returning to their homes Friday night and Saturday.
Others never left.
Porter Ranch resident Harout, 56, stayed behind in his Hampton Court home Thursday night when the fire in the canyons nearby exploded. Harout, who asked that his last name be withheld for privacy, said that if he hadn’t stayed behind to try to protect his two-story house, it would have burned like that of his next-door neighbor. That family’s house is now almost completely charred. Blackened pieces of wood litter the driveway.
Around noon Saturday, neighbors came by to the burned house – the only lost home on the block – and stuck posters with messages of support to the parts of the structure that were still standing. “We’re hugging you,” read one blue sign. Another said, “We love you & are here for you.”
A verse from the Book of Joshua inscribed above the wooden doorway had survived the flames: “As for me and my house, we will serve the lord.”
Some residents on Harout’s cul-de-sac said on Saturday they were furious that the Fire Department hadn’t come to the neighborhood when they called in the predawn hours on Friday.
Jamie Castiel, who lives across the street and also stayed behind to try to protect his house, said he called 911 three times – at 1:38, 1:55 and 2:02 a.m. His backyard had lit up with flames and he went to his pool to collect buckets of water to put it out.
“Nobody came!” he said.
A group of neighbors relayed their concerns to David Ortiz, a spokesman with the Los Angeles Fire Department who was in the neighborhood on Saturday. He said he would forward their information to their City Council member and that an investigation would be conducted to see how long it took firefighters to arrive to the street.
“We have to triage, we have to figure out where we have to place these people, where we have to place these resources,” Ortiz told them. “We’d love to put a fire truck in every cul-de-sac, in every neighborhood.”
Authorities recommend that residents heed mandatory evacuation orders for their own safety, instead of staying behind to try to protect their homes.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued emergency declarations. The governor’s office said it has obtained a federal grant to help offset the costs of fighting the Saddleridge fire and others in the state.
Two firefighters suffered minor injuries while battling the blaze, one to his eye, and a man in his late 50s died after suffering a heart attack while talking with firefighters early Friday, officials said.
Friday afternoon, the wind was pushing the fire west into residential neighborhoods in Porter Ranch and farther west to less-populated areas approaching Rocky Peak Park near the Ventura County line, Silverman said.
He said the wildfire was similar to the 2008 Sayre fire, which leveled the Oakridge Estates mobile home park and was one of the most destructive wildfires in Los Angeles history.