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Homes burn in Bel-Air as wildfire closes 405 Freeway and forces evacuations

LOS ANGELES -- Homes were burning in Los Angeles' Bel-Air neighborhood Wednesday morning as a wind-driven wildfire prompted the closure of the 405 Freeway and triggered mandatory evacuations in an area of multimillion-dollar residences.

By 11 a.m. Pacific time, the Skirball fire had scorched 150 acres and destroyed four to six homes on Casiano Road and Moraga Drive, authorities said. Los Angeles fire officials said the blaze was being driven by 25-mph winds.

From Moraga Drive, gray smoke was visible near publishing billionaire Rupert Murdoch's 16-acre property, the Moraga Vineyards estate. Fire trucks navigating the narrow lanes on the block focused their efforts up the street, where thick brush was being quickly consumed by flames. Authorities could not confirm whether Murdoch's property was affected by the fires.

Elsewhere on Moraga Drive, a firefighter helped a woman place her black suitcase inside her Bentley. She drove away quickly, leaving her yellow Spanish-style house surrounded by flames.

Thick, green brush sizzled about 100 feet away on the hill behind the yellow house, as the flames grew larger.

About 820 customers, including the University of California, Los Angeles and surrounding areas in Westwood, were without power as of 11:50 a.m., said Los Angeles Department of Water and Power spokeswoman Kim Hughes. Two circuits had been impacted, but she could not confirm the cause of the outage.

"The UCLA campus is experiencing a loss of power from LADWP and is relying on self-generating capacity to sustain limited operations. Power is expected to be restored within the hour," UCLA said in a statement.

UCLA canceled classes and told faculty and staff members who were off campus to stay away from the university.

As of 11:20 a.m., the southbound 405 Freeway was open, but the northbound 405 remained closed between the 10 and 101 freeways.

More than 350 firefighters, 52 engines and six fixed-wing aircraft were battling the blaze from the north, west and east. Weather forecasters predicted relatively cool temperatures, in the 50s and 60s, on Wednesday but with continued low humidity and winds above 25 mph.

Ash and smoke swirled in the sky as firefighters battled to save at least one home engulfed in the blaze, atop a hill adjacent to the northbound 405 near Getty Center Drive.

"It's been years since anything here has burned at all," said Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Cody Weireter. "You've got heavy, heavy brush, you've got the dryness -- obviously, we haven't had any rain at all. A lot of the fire is topography-driven, which already becomes dangerous. The wind is going to increase that twofold."

Black smoke began billowing from the fire area just after 9 a.m., apparently when flames reached a canyon area thick with brush 50 to 60 feet deep, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said. The area did not burn in the historic devastating Bel-Air fire, meaning vegetation had built up there for decades.

The city will declare a local state of emergency, Garcetti said.

"These are days that break your heart," Garcetti said. "These are also days that show the resilience of our city."

Authorities have ordered the evacuation of all homes between Mulholland Drive on the north, Sunset Boulevard on the south, Roscomare Road on the east and the 405 Freeway on the west. Earlier in the morning, they ordered evacuations along Casiano Road, Moraga Drive and Linda Flora Drive.

Officials also urged residents west of the fire -- bounded by Mulholland, Sunset, the 405 and Mandeville Canyon Road -- to be ready to leave, although that area is not under an evacuation order. As of 11 a.m., the fire remained east of the 405 Freeway.

Officials urged residents in mandatory evacuation areas to leave, assuring them that firefighters would protect all the homes they could.

"This is no time to be a hero," L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck said.

"We are losing some property and that is tragic, but the most important thing is peoples' lives," said City Councilman Paul Koretz, whose district includes the area that is burning.

But evacuees are running into gridlock as they try to escape.

Drivers seeking alternate routes between the San Fernando Valley and the Westside are getting stuck in traffic on winding, hilly streets in the fire area, which could pose a danger to themselves and to firefighters, LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said.

"It's getting all jammed up in there," he said. "They're deep into the evacuation area."

The following recreation centers have been opened as evacuation sites: Delano, Balboa, Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks, Westwood and Cheviot Hills. Winds, along with heavy smoke and ash, have impeded the firefighters' progress in containing the fire.

"Our greatest threat is, and will always continue to be, the wind," Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said during a Wednesday morning news conference.

Other fires in Southern California have stretched resources thin. The LAFD has scaled back the number of employees and engines responding to 911 calls in other areas of the city, Terrazas said.

Residents near Bel Terrace and North Sepulveda Boulevard raced outside Wednesday morning as flames from the Skirball fire encroached on their homes.

Beverly Freeman, 83, pulled out of her driveway ahead of the flames just before 7 a.m. She didn't take any belongings with her.

As Freeman drove away from the two-story gray house that her husband built for her three decades ago, she was not sure whether she would have a home to return to.

"I was going to die in this house," she said as tears came to her eyes. "The flames have never come so close."

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All schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District are closed Wednesday, as are the following Los Angeles Unified School District campuses: Roscomare Road Elementary, Community Elementary Magnet Charter School and Kenter Canyon Elementary School.

National Weather Service forecasts call for continued windy conditions.

"I would say tonight and tomorrow morning, when we get that additional burst of wind, will be similar to what we saw Monday and Tuesday, but not as strong," said weather service meteorologist David Sweet. "That's not good news for firefighters. The only good news we have is that by Friday morning and over the weekend and on into the week, the winds will not be as strong."

Sweet said winds are expected to gust to 40 to 45 mph in coastal areas, 50 to 60 mph in the valleys, and as high as 70 mph in the mountains.

Some residents still in their homes were prepared to evacuate early. Jackson Rogow, 24, woke up at 6 a.m. to the smell of smoke and the wail of sirens. He ran outside in his boxer shorts and saw his neighbors on Bellagio Road standing in the street and packing their cars. The moon was blood red, he said.

He turned on the news and could see his eight-unit apartment building in the view from a helicopter monitoring the Skirball fire. He turned to his girlfriend and said, "We should pack."

By 7 a.m., fire trucks were racing up and down the street, Rogow said. He packed the couple's cat, Zeppelin, and a bag of kitty litter. His girlfriend found a stack of photographs of her late father.

At about 8:30 a.m., Rogow got an emergency alert on his phone advising him of the evacuation boundaries. He and his girlfriend were squarely inside the area.

Then he remembered a conversation he'd had with his neighbor, who had temporarily left the state for cancer treatment. Before she left, Rogow asked her: "If your house is burning down, what do I grab?"

Her medals, she said. She had more than three dozen, from marathons, half-marathons and 5-kilometer races at Disneyworld. So Rogow broke a window, jumped inside and grabbed them.


(Times staff writers Doug Smith and Kate Mather contributed to this report.)


©2017 Los Angeles Times

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NW News on 12/07/2017

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