San Gabriel Complex Fires Continue to Burn Hillsides

Triple-digit heat has fueled similar fires from the Pacific Coast to New Mexico

Hundreds of residents were forced from their homes near the San Gabriel Mountains remain out of their homes Tuesday evening as two wildfires erupted in the foothill suburbs of Los Angeles, growing fast and surging closer to each other.

The San Gabriel Complex fires in Azusa and Duarte have scorched more than 8 square miles with no containment of the spreading flames, according to the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Hundreds of firefighters, deputies, police agencies and volunteers were battling the blaze and helping residents leave the area.

By Tuesday evening, 770 homes had been evacuated and more than 5,400 acres burned. By nightfall, fire officials determind the fires were 10 percent contained, and the acreage was revised to 4,900.

Firefighters from the Santa Barbara and San Diego are expected to join the fight.

The first fire erupted around 11:15 a.m. Monday on Highway 39 near the Morris Reservoir dam north of Azusa, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The fire was believed to have been started by a vehicle that veered off the road.

The second fire ignited about 4 miles away by Opal Canyon and Brookridge roads, bordering a neighborhood on the foothills near Duarte. The fire near Duarte threatened homes overnight due to shifting winds.

"We had fire on the hillsides above those structures," said Chief John Tripp, of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "Most of the night, that fire creeped down and came to the bottom of the slope.

"We made tremendous progress on the east side of Duarte. Our big threat today is the west flank. There's a fire line that goes from the bottom of the slope all the way to the top of the mountain."

At about 4 a.m., a wind shift pushed the fire down the slope, Tripp said. Firefighters used water dropping helicopters to slow the fire, but communities to the west, including Bradbury and Monrovia, should be ready to evacuate, Tripp said.

"That's still an uncontrolled flank of the fire," Tripp said.

Chief Robert Garcia, of the Angeles National Forest, said the fires are in areas of the forest that "have not burned in a number of years."

Triple-digit heat has fueled similar fires from the Pacific Coast to New Mexico, including one near Portero, a small desert town close to the Mexico border.

The continuing drought and lack of significant rain from the winter El Niño has made Southern California ripe for what could be one of the worst wildfire seasons on record. An El Niño weather pattern brought near-normal snowfall to parts of California last winter, but most of the precipitation stayed to the north of Southern California.

A five-year drought has left 40 million dead and dried-out trees in California, including 29 million that died last year alone, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Evacuation Orders in Foothill Communities

Charlie Downing, out of breath and with his shirt off because of the heat, said when he first smelled fire and felt heat that he ran outside of his house in Duarte and was astonished by size and nearness of the flames. 

"I came running over just to look and it was 15 to 20 feet in the air," Downing told reporters. "By the time I came back and told my grandma and my kids to get in the car, it was right by the car." 

He and two neighbors sprayed the flames with their yard hoses until firefighters arrived minutes later.

Evacuation orders were issued in Azusa for the Mountain Cove, El Encanto and Rainbow Ranch areas, with an evacuation center established at Memorial Park, 320 N. Orange Ave. Voluntary evacuations were in effect for the Mirador and Crystal Canyon areas.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for Duarte Mesa residents living above Markwood Street between Westvale Road and Tocino Drive, and above Conata between Tocino Drive and Mountain Crest Road. Mandatory evacuation orders were issued earlier for residents on Brookridge Road, with voluntary evacuations in effect for residents north of Fish Canyon Road from Greenbank Avenue to Encanto Parkway.

Monrovia residents whose homes are located north of Foothill Boulevard and east of Myrtle Avenue and the Bradbury area were advised that evacuations could be implemented, sheriff's deputies said.

Residents in Bradbury and Monrovia were at the ready to evacuate at any time, though some who had already evacuated were frustrated.

"If you evacuate, you can't get back in. If you stay, you can't get out," Theresa Allain, a Duarte resident, said.

Additional road closures were announced Tuesday.

  • Mount Olive Drive at Royal Oaks Drive
  • Vineyard Avenue at Markwood Street
  • Woodbluff Street from Sunnydale Drive
  • Greenbank Avenue from Deerlane Drive
  • Conata Street at Bettyhill Avenue
  • Mel Canyon Road at Opal Canyon Road
  • Mountain Crest Road at Fish Canyon Road
  • Encanto parkway at Markwood Street
  • Mount Olive Drive at Woodlyn Lane
  • Mount Olive Drive at Elda Street

NBC4's Annette Arreola and Toni Guinyard contributed to this report.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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