Fires rage, power grid tested by Southern California heat wave


A monster came to life in the rolling hills of northwestern Los Angeles County, erupting smoke and flames amid triple-digit heat that has forced officials across California to call for voluntary energy conservation in hopes of preventing rolling blackouts.

In less than 24 hours, the Route fire charred more than 5,000 acres near Castaic, though it appeared crews started turning a corner on Thursday.

The fire, which ignited Wednesday afternoon, spanned 5,208 acres Thursday evening, according to the LA County Fire Department. The containment increased from 12% in the morning to 27% around 7:30 PM

By 1 p.m., all evacuation orders were lifted and residents were allowed to return to their homes.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, crews also made progress on a second major fire, the Border 32 fire in San Diego County, which remained at 4,438 acres and was contained 14%.

Near the Route fire, temperatures soared to 111 degrees on Thursday, said Tom Fisher, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, citing data from an Edison gauge in Southern California near Castaic Lake.

The fire was brought under control by the heat.

Officials on Thursday took the unusual step of withdrawing some frontline firefighters after seven crew members were taken to hospitals due to heat-related illnesses.

Fire officials said all firefighters had been treated and released on Thursday morning.

The order to withdraw, said a fire department official, was to reduce the risk for firefighters who had to perform the most grueling tasks as temperatures rose. Instead, the crews would focus on an air strike.

“It’s a tactical break for the crews experiencing the greatest heat impact,” said Thomas C. Ewald, deputy fire chief for Los Angeles County. “We’re just trying to reduce the pressure on the firefighters.”

On Thursday night, the Route fire destroyed two buildings and threatened another 550, firefighters said.

The heat wave is expected to continue into next week, perhaps not until Wednesday, with high temperatures in both the inland and coastal areas and greater fire hazards.

“It should be a wake-up call for all of us,” said Robert Garcia, U.S. Forest Service chief fire chief. “The next few days are going to be very challenging.”

It’s rare for firefighters to withdraw their resources, especially when high temperatures increase the threat of fires, but Ewald said “the biggest threat right now is to our firefighters. We want to reduce the intensity a little bit.”

“For our people who are there, they don’t have the opportunity to go to an air-conditioned environment,” Ewald said. “They’re on a leash, they’re not in the shade. Their number 1 tool is hydration and preparation.”

More than 500 personnel were assigned to the Route fire as of Thursday night, fire officials said. There were 11 hand crews, 58 fire engines, 10 bulldozers, eight helicopters and two fixed-wing aircraft.

But the heat wave and extreme fire conditions across the state also threatened to spread resources thinly. Fire officials arranged for planes to be launched early Thursday morning, aware they could be diverted into the Border 32 fire, which threatened homes near the US-Mexico border.

Low humidity, extreme heat and steep terrain also threatened rescuers’ efforts.

The Route fire was first reported along the 5 Freeway near Lake Hughes Road just after noon on Wednesday, leading to complete lane closures in both directions.

On Thursday night, two northbound lanes between Lake Hughes Road and Templin Highway had reopened and two remained closed, the California Department of Transportation. On the south side of the highway, three lanes were open and one lane was closed.

The fire also prompted evacuation orders north of Northlake Hills Elementary School and south of Templin Highway. The orders were lifted on Thursday afternoon, good news for residents fleeing the fire and still trying to escape the scorching heat.

Cesar Constantino, 48, and his wife were not in their mobile home at Paradise Ranch Estates when the fire started Wednesday, but their phones started ringing with calls from neighbors warning them of the approaching flames.

Their three children grabbed the family’s important documents, their dog Jokey and their two guinea pigs and went to the Red Cross evacuation center at West Ranch High School for the night.

Constantino and nearly 40 others spent the night in the gym, struggling with no air conditioning. On Thursday afternoon, he sat at the front of the gym where residents had to check in, the only place with a working air conditioning.

Instead, the shelter is equipped with four large fans to keep people cool. Some residents chose to sleep in their car in the parking lot.

On Thursday morning, the property manager warned Constantino that electricity and water were still turned off at the mobile home park.

“We need air conditioning,” he said. “Maybe we can go back tonight.”

Captain Mark McCurdy with Los Angeles County Station 149 and his crew were the first to arrive at the blaze on Wednesday when they saw the blaze spread quickly on the grass on the north side of 5 Freeway.

Even then, the heat took its toll on the firefighters.

“I’ve been doing this for a while now and yesterday was even tough for me,” he said. “On a day like yesterday you’re still pushing as hard as you would on a normal day, but it just makes it harder.”

The punishing heat, meanwhile, continued to put pressure on communities around the Southland.

Lancaster, Palmdale and Sandberg set record highs for September 1, with some records falling after more than 70 years.

Lancaster saw a high of 112 degrees on Thursday, surpassing the earlier daily high of 110 in 1950; Sandberg’s high of 99 broke the 1996 record of 97 degrees; and Palmdale equaled the daily record of 109, originally set in 1947.

National Weather Service meteorologists in Oxnard said temperatures could drop 5 to 10 degrees on Friday, but the reprieve will be short-lived; On Sunday, daily records could be set in the valleys of Los Angeles County, the Antelope Valley and the mountains of San Luis Obispo County, the weather service said.

It was the second day of record heat in the Los Angeles area.

On Wednesday, Woodland Hills reached 112 degrees, breaking the previous record for the 1998 date of 111 degrees, according to the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Burbank’s high of 112 for Wednesday broke the previous daily record of 108 degrees set in 2017, and Sandberg reached 100 degrees that day, surpassing the previous high of 98 degrees, also in 2017, the weather service said.

Faced with increased demand for electricity, the California Independent System Operator, which manages the power grid, has a Flex Alert extended until Friday.

During a Flex Alert, consumers are urged to reduce their electricity consumption from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., when the grid is most stressed due to high demand and less available energy from solar panels.

Flex Alerts were also issued on Wednesday and Thursday. The heat wave is expected to last well into the next week.

Authorities are concerned about power capacity, in part because high temperatures are forecast not only in inland regions where it is typically hot at this time of year, but also along many parts of the coast.

That could mean many more people turning on their air conditioners during peak times.

Officials are asking Californians to limit electricity consumption where possible to minimize the strain on the state’s energy suppliers or risk a power outage. Losing power during such extreme heat can be very dangerous, if not deadly, especially for the most vulnerable.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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