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L.A. endures a day of fire fueled by intense winds as officials brace for more

The focus early Tuesday was on the destruction in Ventura County when a small fire ignited in the Angeles National Forest near Sylmar.

Within an hour, the blaze was raging out of control, closing freeways, destroying homes, forcing thousands to evacuate and sending choking smoke into the inland valleys.

The Creek fire was one of several stubborn blazes that erupted during what weather forecasters said were the strongest Santa Ana winds in a decade. The conditions were ripe for fires, and Los Angeles County got several, including one near Magic Mountain that forced the closure of Interstate 5 and another along the 118 Freeway in Porter Ranch.

The fires might offer a preview of the days ahead, which are expected to bring even stronger winds through Thursday.

“Generally, it’s awful fire weather today, tomorrow and Thursday,” National Weather Service forecaster Ryan Kittell said. “Thursday looks potentially the worst.… We’re still going to have the winds, dry relative humidity and maybe 10 degrees warmer.”

Officials are bracing for more fires — and urged residents to do the same.

“This will not be the only fire,” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said. “We’re going to be hard-pressed to meet all the resources throughout the city and the county of Los Angeles due to this weather event.”

The worst of the L.A. County wildfires burned through the foothills of the Angeles National Forest above Sylmar and Lake View Terrace, destroying at least 30 homes, injuring three firefighters and scorching more than 11,000 acres. All three firefighters were described as stable Tuesday evening.

The uncontained Creek fire broke out off Little Tujunga Canyon Road about 4 a.m. and grew so rapidly that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a state of emergency as 110,000 to 150,000 people were forced from their homes. More than 20 square miles of residential property were evacuated.

Fourteen Los Angeles Unified schools will be closed Wednesday due to the Creek fire.

“We want to be really clear with folks. We have lost structures — we have not lost lives. Do not wait, leave your homes,” Garcetti said. “We are erring on a side of abundance of caution for those evacuations because this wind could pick up and go a different direction. We simply don’t know what this fire will do.”

About 4 a.m. Tuesday, a neighbor woke up Wood Grigsby, who has lived in upper Kagel Canyon for 12 years.

“I came outside, and we were surrounded pretty much on all sides by fire,” Grigsby said.

He said his house is well-defended against fire — he clears the brush, has gravel and there isn’t much to burn close to him. But he and his son did take furniture in from the porch and grabbed shovels to put out little fires burning in the grass and fields of his neighbor’s house.

His neighbor’s house, about 180 feet up the mountain from him, burned, which worried him.

“By the time the fire department got there, it was completely engulfed in flames,” he said. “The wind would change … and when it did that, it would blow up a bunch of embers into the air. It’s very dramatic-looking in the dark to see those embers coming by in a tornado-like fashion and just dropping all over my property.”

He and his son stayed outside for about three hours putting out embers and making sure they didn’t ignite fires on his property or neighbors’ lots.

“The fire department was just stretched so thin. When you get a big fire going like this, there’s only so much we can do. So my son and I were out there with our little shovels, helping as much as we could,” he said.

Grigsby said he was unaware of any mandatory evacuations. The fire department checked in on them, he said, and told him to be careful.

Many evacuated families took shelter at the Sylmar Recreation Center, where 30 to 50 people had gathered before noon Tuesday.

Scott Wells sat with his wife and son in the center’s gym between the basketball hoops, waiting to learn when he might be able to go home. Wells woke up in the predawn hours in his home in upper Kagel Canyon and smelled the smoke. When he looked outside, there was brush burning all around. He woke his wife, Patricia Beckmann Wells, and the two began putting out spot fires.

“It was pretty scary,” Wells said. “It was all around us.”

When their 5-year-old son, Petey, woke up and smelled smoke, “he got a little freaked out,” Wells said. “But we talked him down.… And then he was fine.”

Authorities came later and asked them to evacuate. “There were houses on fire,” Wells said.

He said they’ve been monitoring a Facebook group for the canyon and they’ve been told their house is fine. But at least two houses they know of are gone, and they’ve heard of more.

In Santa Clarita, the Rye fire burned 5,000 acres, forcing thousands to flee their homes as an enormous cloud of smoke rose over the area. Interstate 5 was temporarily closed, jamming traffic on the key north-south route for hours.

In San Bernardino County, three people suffered burns as the fast-moving Little Mountain fire forced residents from their homes. The evacuation orders were lifted late in the day.

All the fires caused smoky, ashy air across the region.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District cautioned residents in the San Fernando Valley and northwest coastal areas of L.A. County to stay indoors and avoid areas with visible smoke because of the unhealthful air quality.

“It is difficult to tell where ash or soot from a fire will go, or how winds will affect the level of dust particles in the air, so we ask all individuals to be aware of their immediate environment and to take actions to safeguard their health,” Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, interim health officer for Los Angeles County, said in a statement. “Smoke and ash can be harmful to health, especially in vulnerable individuals, like the elderly, people with asthma or individuals with other respiratory and heart conditions.”


11:10 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect three firefighters were injured.

This article was originally published at 9:20 p.m.

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