- The Saddleridge Fire broke out in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles on Thursday night.
- The blaze has consumed over 7,542 acres of land, prompting mandatory evacuation orders for about 100,000 people as of Friday afternoon.
- The fire has spread at a rate of 800 acres per hour, fuelled by dry, hot conditions and powerful Santa Ana winds.
- At least 25 buildings have been destroyed, and portions of four major freeways were closed.
- One man died in the hospital after suffering cardiac arrest.
- Warmer, drier conditions driven by climate change have made destructive wildfires more common across California.
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A rapidly growing bush fire that began in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles on Thursday has burned over 7,542 acres and prompted evacuation orders for over 100,000 residents.
Strong Santa Ana winds have pushed the fire, dubbed the Saddleridge Fire, across the San Fernando Valley and into residential areas at a rate of 800 acres per hour, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.
“These weather conditions are significant,” LA Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas told reporters at a press conference on Friday. “You can imagine the embers from the wind have been travelling at significant distances, which cause other fires to start.”
The blaze had destroyed at least 31 buildings and homes as of Friday afternoon.
Over 1,000 firefighters are battling the flames, the LA Fire Department said on Friday. About 13% of the fire area has been contained.
A man in his late 50s died in the hospital on Friday morning after going into cardiac arrest while talking to firefighters, the Los Angeles Times reported. One firefighter suffered a minor eye injury.
Mandatory evacuations around Sylmar
The mandatory evacuations affect neighbourhoods north of the 118 freeway, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has marked those areas on a live online map. The locations under urgent mandatory evacuation orders are highlighted in red, while “evacuation warning” areas are in yellow.
In a tweet, the LA Police Department said those who live in the yellow zones should “be prepared to evacuate immediately if needed.”
Five evacuation centres are available to people leaving their homes: the Brandford Recreation Centre, Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks Recreation Centre, Granada Hills Recreation Centre, Lanark Recreation Centre, and Northridge Recreation Centre.
Mason Park and the Sylmar Recreation Centre closed their doors to new arrivals on Friday afternoon.
Portions of four major freeways – the 5, the southbound lanes of 14, northbound 405, and the 210 in both directions – have been closed. Service on the Metrolink and Surfliner trains has been disrupted as well.
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the LA Times that he had seen some residents fighting flames with garden hoses on their properties. He urged residents to evacuate instead.
“Those individuals placed not only themselves in imminent peril, but they placed first responders such as police and fire officials in that same perilous condition because of our need and desire to go in and try to rescue them,” Moore said.
Weather conditions could keep the blaze going for days
Winds drove the Saddleridge flames into residential areas so quickly on Thursday night that officials couldn’t warn residents, the LA Times reported.
Officials have since sent out helicopters and Super Scoopers - aircraft that fly low over lakes or reservoirs and scoop up water - to drown the flames. But they said it will likely take several days to get the blaze under control.
“Nobody’s going home right away,” Terrazas said at the press conference.
Rising temperatures and low humidity have dried out California brush, and the boost from Santa Ana winds – with gusts up to 50 mph – have thus far put firefighters at a disadvantage.
“This is a very dynamic fire,” Terrazas said. “Do not wait to leave. If we ask you to evacuate, please evacuate.”
Flames came quickly in the night, residents reported
Cece Merkerson, who lives in the Porter Ranch neighbourhood of LA’s San Fernando Valley, told the LA Times that she first noticed an orange glow outside the window of her apartment around 11:30 p.m. on Thursday. She started packing her bags.
Merkerson, like many other residents, had known a fire was raging in the nearby Granada Hills, but assumed she was safe.
Then, around 2 a.m., she looked out the window again and saw flames.
“I started knocking on all my neighbours’ doors because I knew they were sleeping,” she said. “I’m banging and banging and I woke up about eight of them – and they all looked at me like I was crazy.”
Other locals shared similar stories.
“You’re on edge. You think you get used to it,” Granada Hills resident Kim Thompson told the LA Times. “But you can’t really get used to this.”
Hotter temperatures fuel bigger fires
In recent years, warmer temperatures across the western US have caused more land to burn. Of the 10 largest wildfires in California history, nine have occurred since the year 2003.
The 2018 wildfire season was the deadliest and most destructive in California history: A total 7,500 fires burned over 1,670,000 acres – more land than any previous fire season. The Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history, killed 85 people and burned the entire town of Paradise in November.
That fire was caused by electrical transmission lines belonging to Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest electric utility, Cal Fire determined after an investigation in May. To prevent another such disaster, PG&E shut off power to 800,000 residents in northern California ahead of dry, windy conditions this week.
California fire experts say the entire concept of a wildfire season might be outdated, since dangerous fires can occur at any time of year these days.
“We’re responding to wildland fires year round now,” Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean told the Sacramento Bee last year.
Experts say that trend will continue as the effects of climate change keep getting worse. California’s 2018 Climate Change Assessment report estimated that the average area burned in wildfires will increase 77% by the year 2100 if greenhouse-gas emissions continue to increase.
A study published Tuesday also showed that warm, dry conditions are fuelling more severe fires in the Sierra Nevada region.
“Our data show that climate has been the main driver of fire on a regional scale,” Richard Vachula, the study’s lead author, said in a release. “We find that warm and dry conditions promote fire, which in light of climate model predictions suggests that future fires may be more extensive than we have observed in the last century.”
What’s more, exceptionally wet winters are no longer tempering catastrophic summer fires, according to a study published in January.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” California Governor Jerry Brown said last year. “Since civilisation emerged 10,000 years ago, we haven’t had this kind of heat condition, and it’s going to continue getting worse.”
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