Calif. fire crews survive close call, save homes

A wind driven brush fire burns along the foothills of Sierra Madre, Calif. early Monday. Dan Steinberg / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fire crews battling a wildfire had a close call early Monday as winds unexpectedly kicked up and sent flames within yards of several houses in this northeast section of this foothills community.

Firefighters watered down embers that drifted onto a few roofs and fought back the blaze.

Water-dropping aircraft were back in the air Monday to complement ground crews as more than 580 firefighters attacked the blaze.

Calmer wind and rising humidity were expected to help after temperatures neared 100 Sunday, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Ed Gililland.

The blaze had charred 490 acres by Monday morning, authorities said. Containment had fallen from 30 percent to 23 percent because the burst of wind during the night.

1,000 still evacuated
All of Sierra Madre’s schools canceled Monday classes, and at least 1,000 people had evacuated their homes in the foothills. Authorities said no homes had burned since the fire began Saturday.

“This is pretty serious. Some of these areas have not burned in over 40 years,” city spokeswoman Elisa Weaver said.

On Sunday, helicopters made water drops on a steep ridge above Sierra Madre near Bailey Canyon Wilderness Park, about 15 miles northeast of Los Angeles and just east of Pasadena. A fixed-wing water tanker also dropped flame retardant.

The blaze had been creeping northwest into the Angeles National Forest, Battalion Chief Tim Davis of the Forest Service said Sunday.

“It’s very steep, inaccessible terrain, and it’s very heavy brush,” Davis said at a news conference. “Very difficult and arduous labor for these crews. You can’t get bulldozers into the majority of where these fingers of fire run.”

Wedding party airlifted out
The blaze stranded 50 wedding party guests at a ranger station from Saturday until they were airlifted out by helicopter Sunday afternoon. It took five helicopter trips from the ranger’s station to the parking area where the wedding party’s cars were. The party then was escorted out by road.

Investigators had not yet determined the cause of the fire.

Two firefighters were treated for minor injuries, authorities said.

Late last year, strong winds, high temperatures and parched brush after a record drought were blamed for spreading a series of blazes from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border that destroyed thousands of buildings and drove hundreds of thousands of Californians from their homes.