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‘We’re not out of the woods yet’: Some Skirball fire evacuation orders lifted after fire destroys 6 Bel-Air homes, burns 475 acres

Bel-Air residents lined up outside the Skirball fire‘s evacuation zone Thursday afternoon waiting for police escorts to pick up needed medication from their homes.

Though the skies were once again blue, and the fire that ripped them from their beds Wednesday morning was 30 percent contained and no longer visible, firefighters worried the blaze could catch new life at any moment.

Santa Ana conditions persisted and the erratic winds were feared to make a comeback.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Los Angeles Fire Department Deputy Chief Charles Butler said Thursday evening. “We have 15 to 20 mph northeast winds tonight. We’ve got a lot of work to do to get full containment on this fire. We’ll have firefighters committed throughout the night extinguishing hot spots on the hillsides.”

Officials said they will again reconsider lifting the evacuation order at 3 p.m. Friday. But they did reopen some areas beginning at 8 p.m.: Roscomare Road, Bel Terrace, all roads between Sunset Boulevard and Bellagio Road, and North Casiano Road from Mulholland Drive.

Six homes were destroyed and 12 were damaged in the fire that consumed 475 acres in the upscale region just west of Beverly Hills. A firefighter suffered minor burns but no one else was injured, officials said.

“We didn’t have the kind of disaster we feared in the beginning,” Councilman Paul Koretz said. “Only six homes were destroyed and no residents were injured. That’s an amazing result.”

But evacuated residents said they’re eager for the traumatic event to end.

“We just want to go home, shower and change,” Gary Randall said. “All the hotels are booked up in Beverly Hills and Brentwood.”

Randall was awakened just before 6 a.m. Wednesday by a neighbor, who told him to get his 6-year-old son and evacuate immediately.

“It looked like the apocalypse,” Randall said. “It was really hard to stop staring. It’s something you see on movies. My son was terrified, he was shaking pretty hard.”

Sonia Soni-Mehta said a neighbor woke her up Wednesday banging on her door. She looked outside and saw the raging fire right next to her home.

“I didn’t know what to do. It’s so humbling,” Soni-Mehta said. “I was in shock.”

Family members traveled from Canada to help her, her three children, and two dogs get situated in a hotel.

“My daughter wants her stuffed animal, she’s been crying for it all night,” Soni-Mehta said.

On Thursday afternoon, several firefighters rested near a lawn of multi-million villas in the upscale Bel-Air neighborhood. Nearby a rooftop in one house had fallen on a charred Bentley parked in a garage. Some of the firefighters said they were planning to stay at the site until Saturday when winds are expected to slowly weaken.

The winds died down overnight Wednesday, and that helped keep the fire from spreading Thursday, LAFD Assistant Chief Armando Hogan said. He also noted that cooperation from residents in the evacuation helped in their efforts.

“Even though it’s been a smaller fire, we’ve seen threats to homes and hot spots,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “Just because you don’t see the smoke, doesn’t mean that the danger is gone.”

While authorities said that residents have primarily heeded the commands of fire and police personnel to leave and stay out of the evacuation zones, they haven’t gotten the same cooperation from developers building homes within the area.

“Their operating as if nothing is going on and that absolutely should not be happening,” Koretz said.

The developers were bringing full construction crews in with them both to the fire evacuation zone and surrounding areas, according to Koretz. He said they should have stayed out of the area until told it was safe just like residents.

“Get the hell out,” Koretz said during a mid-morning news conference, “and don’t come back until the evacuation order is lifted.”

Unique to the Skirball and Creek fires were the aid of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle), otherwise known as drones.

LAFD launched drones for the first time to aid their fight against the Skirball fire along with the Creek fire burning in Sylmar, according to Chief Ralph Terrazas. The drones were used primarily to assess property damage and find hot spots, he said.

The drones will only be dispatched while aircrafts aiding in the firefight are grounded as a safety precaution, Terrazas said.

While containment of the fire has grown, “we’re not done, this event is not over,” Terrazas said of the winds and continued firefight. The area had a burn index of 296 Thursday, which is the highest Terrazas has ever seen in his career.

He said officials are being extremely cautious about allowing residents to return to the area. “We can replace a house, we can’t replace people,” Terrazas said.

The fire and the resulting smoke prompted the closure of UCLA, Santa Monica College, Los Angeles Mission College, Los Angeles Valley College and all schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu School District. A total of 265 Los Angeles Unified School District schools and charter schools were closed citywide in response to the Skirball fire and other blazes in the area.

During an afternoon briefing, Garcetti reminded parents with children out of school that all the city recreation centers and libraries were currently open.

“City Libraries are ready for any LAUSD students that are out of school today during business hours. 26 rec centers in SFV (all but centers acting as shelters) are open from 9:30–6 pm today and tomorrow w/ indoor activities (e.g. board games) for your family,” he later wrote on Twitter.

Four evacuation centers have been set up at Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks Recreation Center, 14201 Huston Street in Sherman Oaks, Balboa Recreation Center, 17015 Burbank Blvd. in Encino; Delano Recreation Center, 15100 Erwin St. in Van Nuys; and Westwood Recreation Center, 1350 Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles. All four centers are accepting evacuees and pets with owner and also have sleeping cots, according to the City of Los Angeles website.

About 100 officers from the Los Angeles Police Department were sent to the neighborhood to handle evacuation orders and units would remain on duty, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said.

At one point, up to 300 LAPD personnel were on scene to also help protect homes from potential looters. A citywide police tactical alert, however, was canceled about 5 p.m.

Garcetti declared a local state of emergency Wednesday in response to the Skirball fire, requesting state and federal assistance in response to the fire. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for all of Los Angeles and Ventura counties on Tuesday as fires continued to burn throughout the region.

“These are days that break your heart,” Garcetti said Wednesday. “These are also days that show the resilience of our city.”

The nearby Getty Center is expected to reopen Friday, after shutting its doors for three days due to the smoke from the wildfires burning in the region, and later the much closer Skirball fire.

Both Getty museums will reopen Friday, said Ron Hartwig, a spokesman for the Getty. The Getty Villa in Malibu had also been closed since Tuesday.

“Fortunately, it appears as though the Skirball fire has moved to the east, and we had a discussion about the possibility of opening tomorrow, and decided it was the right thing to do,” Hartwig said. “It will be opened to the public and staff.”

The nearby Skirball Cultural Center — which was closed Wednesday and Thursday due to it’s proximity to the blaze — will also reopen on Friday, according Mia Carino, vice president of communications and marketing for the center.

Los Angeles police Cmdr. Blake Chow reminded Southlanders that red flag parking restrictions were still in place in the Hollywood and West Los Angeles areas, which are meant to keep streets open for firefighting equipment. Those restrictions will expire at 8 a.m. Friday, according to Terrazas.

The fire caused the full closure of the 405 Freeway between the 101 and 10 freeways after it erupted early Wednesday morning. The 405 was fully reopened by Wednesday afternoon, but the northbound off-ramps for Moraga, Getty Center and Skirball Center drives were still closed Thursday.

source: dailynews

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