Calif. wildfire jumps aqueduct, approaches homes
PALMDALE, Calif (AP) – A huge wildfire in the high desert wilderness north of Los Angeles jumped an aqueduct on Friday, rushing toward hundreds of houses as firefighters also tried to keep flames from damaging power lines that bring electricity to Southern California.
Some 2,000 structures were threatened and 300 homes were evacuated, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said.
Destiny Brown, 19, stood beside her family’s tan Ford Taurus waiting for her mother and sisters to finish packing so they could leave their home in a smoke-clogged Delta Ridge subdivision on the outskirts of Palmdale.
“I never thought it would happen. I only thought it’s on TV. It’s really scary,” the 19-year-old said of the flames that burned just out of sight.
When their home filled with smoke, the family decided it was time to go. Brown said she was especially concerned about her 10-month-old brother who has asthma.
In the adjacent Amber Ridge subdivision, Barbara Murphy, 62, said she decided to stay put even though she and other residents in the development had lost power.
She said she felt secure in the center of the subdivision and had come through several fires unscathed during her decades living in the Antelope Valley.
“I’ve lived here for 43 years and I’ve never left the scene of a fire,” she said.
Winds apparently carried embers across the wide concrete channel, with flames rapidly spreading to backyard fences at the edge of Palmdale. Plumes of smoke streamed across the city of 139,000 as a predicted afternoon increase in winds finally arrived.
Helicopters dipped buckets into the aqueduct to make rapid water drops. No homes immediately appeared to have been damaged. Numerous fire engines were in the area. A giant Boeing 747 supertanker arrived over Palmdale to join the battle.
“As you see, we are deploying everything that we’ve got,” Schwarzenegger said at the fire command post.
Sustained winds of 10 mph to 20 mph were reported, said Los Angeles County fire Inspector Matt Levesque.
“We are actively moving resources to defend that area,” he said.
Most of the homes in the area, however, are of recent construction with fire resistant roofs, stucco walls, boxed eaves and landscaped with fire-resistant vegetation, he said. No evacuations were ordered but were recommended.
Temperatures neared 100 degrees with single-digit relative humidity and the National Weather Service predicted gusts in the area up to 50 mph Friday night. The fire has burned more than 20 square miles since erupting Thursday afternoon and was 20 percent contained, Schwarzenegger said.
Elsewhere in the battle, aircraft bombarded flames on ridges above the Antelope Valley on the southern edge of the Mojave Desert, while 1,370 firefighters working in high heat sought to outflank the blaze no matter which way it moved.
“We want to pinch it off and call it done,” fire Capt. Andrew Olvera said.
Deputy Fire Chief Michael Bryant said an investigation into the cause of the fire is centering on workers who were hammering on some bolts to remove a tire rim. The workers were cooperating with the investigation.
The blaze spread rapidly after breaking out at midafternoon Thursday, triggering overnight evacuations of about 2,000 homes in rural areas and down to the western side of Palmdale.
One house and three mobile home residences were destroyed, another house had roof damage and various other outbuildings and garages were lost in the horse country region, authorities said.
Maria Norton, 19, expected to be home Friday evening preparing for Saturday’s Miss Antelope Valley pageant.
Instead, this year’s Miss Leona Valley is in a motel, worrying about the health of her horse, Sally, after fire destroyed her family’s stable.
“It’s kind of all a big nightmare,” Norton said.
The college sophomore packed her purple pageant dress and fled her family’s home in a sparsely populated area Thursday after freeing Sally just before flames engulfed the barn.
Sheriff’s deputies urged the family to flee before Sally could be loaded into a trailer and hauled away to safety.
Overnight, Norton learned that animal rescuers had taken Sally to local fairgrounds where large animals were being sheltered during the fire.
When Norton went to visit Sally on Friday afternoon, the horse wasn’t doing well.
“She’s very sluggish. Not upbeat,” she said. “It’s taking a toll on her.”
Southern California Edison said the fire threatened five high-voltage transmission lines, but the California grid operator had put additional generation resources online and customers were not expected to be affected if the utility lost those lines.
Only 21 SCE customers in the fire area were without power.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power asked its customers to reduce electrical usage until the threat eased, but added that it had begun local generation and its system was functioning normally.
A DC-10 jumbo jet tanker that can carry 12,000-gallon loads dropped retardant, leaving orange slashes across ridges. Four other air tankers and nine helicopters also attacked the flames.
The fire broke out near a state highway that snakes through the San Gabriel Mountains, connecting Los Angeles to the high desert.
Elsewhere, good weather in neighboring Kern County helped firefighters build containment lines around two wildfires that destroyed homes in remote mountain communities earlier in the week.
To the north, a fire that destroyed eight residences and a few outbuildings as it spread across about 26 square miles of the Sequoia National Forest in the Sierra Nevada was 55 percent contained, authorities said.