A brush fire that exploded overnight thanks to single-digit humidity and gusting Santa Ana winds continued a relentless march through the San Fernando Valley today, forcing about 100,000 people from their homes, leaving one man dead and prompting the closure of dozens of schools.
As of Friday evening, the Saddleridge Fire had consumed 7,542 acres in the areas of Sylmar, Granada Hills and Porter Ranch, damaging or destroying at least 31 structures. According to Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas, 13 of those structures were completely destroyed, while the rest suffered varying degrees of damage.
The fire was 13% contained as of Friday evening.
The blaze was reported just after 9 p.m. Thursday off the westbound Foothill (210) Freeway near Yarnell Street and Saddle Ridge Road in Sylmar and quickly spread due to wind-blown embers that jumped the Golden State (5) Freeway about 11:20 p.m., spreading the flames into Granada Hills and Porter Ranch, according to Margaret Stewart of the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Fire officials said winds in the area were blowing at 20 to 30 mph Friday afternoon, with occasional gusts of up to 60 mph, but those winds diminished as the day went on.
National Weather Service forecasters noted that humidity levels in the area were expected to remain in the single digits -- meaning critically dry conditions that prompted an extension of a red flag warning until 6 p.m. Saturday.
As of Friday afternoon, fire officials said the flames were primarily advancing on the fire's northern flank.
One person, described only as a man in his 50s, died of a heart attack Friday morning in the Porter Ranch area, according to the LAFD. Terrazas said the man was actually speaking to firefighters when he went into cardiac arrest, and he died at a hospital. According to reports from the scene, the man had been working to protect his home from the blaze.
One firefighter suffered a minor eye injury, according to the LAFD.
The massive fire prompted a mandatory evacuation order for all residents of Porter Ranch north of the Ronald Reagan (118) Freeway from Reseda Boulevard to DeSoto Avenue. Residents of Granada Hills from Balboa Boulevard and north of Sesnon Boulevard to the Ventura County border were under a mandatory evacuation order. Mandatory evacuations were also issued for the Oakridge Estates community north of the Foothill Freeway in Sylmar.
The evacuation orders affected roughly 23,000 homes -- equating to about 100,000 people, authorities said.
At 5 p.m., the evacuation order was lifted for all homes south of the 118 Freeway, and Los Angeles police were arranging escorts for people in other areas to briefly return to their homes to collect important documents, medications or other needed items.
Eight evacuation centers were established, but many of them quickly reached capacity, although space appeared to be opening up sporadically as the day wore on. The evacuation centers were opened at:
-- Sylmar Recreation Center, 13109 Borden Ave.;
-- Mason Recreation Center, 10500 Mason Ave. in Chatsworth;
-- Granada Hills Recreation Center, 16730 Chatsworth St.;
-- Northridge Recreation Center, 18300 Lemarsh St.,
-- Lanark Recreation Center, 21816 Lanark St. in Canoga Park;
-- Balboa Sports Complex, 17015 Burbank Blvd., Encino;
-- Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks Recreation Center, 14201 Huston St.; and
-- Branford Recreation Center, 13306 Branford St., Arleta.
Large animals can be taken to the Hansen Dam Recreation Area at 11770 Foothill Blvd. in Lake View Terrace or Pierce College at 6201 Winnetka Ave. in Woodland Hills.
About 330 juveniles and staff from the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall at 16350 Filbert St. in Sylmar were evacuated Friday morning. The Sylmar Juvenile Courthouse at the same location was also closed. Court officials said all cases on calendar Friday were postponed, except those with ``statutory deadlines,'' which were being heard at the Eastlake Juvenile Courthouse, 1601 Eastlake Ave., Los Angeles.
Authorities urged residents to heed evacuation warnings for their own safety.
``When you're told to leave, we mean for you to leave,'' Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore said Friday morning. ``It's for your safety, it will save your life. If you stay in those areas we cannot guarantee you that we'll be able to find you if you're overcome by flames.''
Roughly 1,000 firefighters from LAFD, Los Angeles County Fire Department and Angeles National Forest were on the ground battling the flames, aided by water-dropping helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft dropping fire retardant.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who cut short a strip to Copenhagen, Denmark, due to the fire, and county Board of Supervisors chair Janice Hahn both signed local emergency declarations, and by late afternoon, Gov. Gavin Newsom had declared a state of emergency for Los Angeles and Riverside counties. The declarations free up local and state resources to aid in the firefighting effort.
The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power reported overnight that about 2,500 customers had lost power in the Granada Hills and Sylmar areas. The utility noted that much of the power to Porter Ranch is provided through underground lines, but there had been damage to two overhead circuits and 16 power poles. As of about 8 a.m., DWP reported that 870 customers were without power -- all within the mandatory evacuation area. That number was reduced to 21 customers by early Friday afternoon.
The utility had cut power to some overhead power lines Thursday night to assist with the firefighting efforts. The placement of the power lines in the area added to the hazards facing helicopter pilots trying to drop water on the flames.
The flames also created a traffic nightmare, with all freeways from the north into the Porter Ranch area blocked during the morning commute. Closures that had been implemented on the Ronald Reagan (118) Freeway were lifted by late morning, and other stretches were reopened as the day went on.
According to the California Highway Patrol, as of Friday afternoon, closures were being lifted on the Golden State (5) Freeway and the San Diego (405) Freeway. The only remaining freeway closure as of late Friday was the Foothill (210) Freeway between the 118 and 5 freeways.
Metrolink officials said the railroad tracks on its Antelope Valley Line were closed between the Sylmar/San Fernando and Newhall stations due to the fire. Agency officials said they were unable to provide buses through the area as an alternative due to the freeway closures.
The Los Angeles Unified School District canceled classes at all campuses in the fire area, and classes were dismissed early at others affected by smoke. All schools in the Castaic Unified and Newhall school districts were also shuttered. Cal State Northridge was closed, along with Los Angeles Pierce College, Los Angeles Mission College and Los Angeles Valley College.
There was no immediate word on what sparked the blaze. Terrazas noted that city officials had been working with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to clear homeless people out of fire-prone areas during the red-flag conditions that began Thursday, but he said he did not know if there were any encampments near the flashpoint of the blaze.
Various media reports cited a witness claiming the first flames erupted at the base of a Southern California Edison transmission tower along Saddle Ridge Road. Terrazas said he was aware of the reports ``of a witness seeing fire fall from a transmission tower,'' but there still had not been any determination of what caused the fire.