Crews battle Saddleridge Fire

SADDLERIDGE BLAZE: Ozzy Butler pours water onto his deck at his parents' house as the Saddleridge Fire burns along Thunderbird Avenue. Friday morning, Oct. 11, in Porter Ranch, Calif. Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

LOS ANGELES – Firefighters were hoping to take advantage of favorable weather conditions on Saturday to get the upper hand on the Saddleridge Fire, a sprawling blaze that has torched the hills of the northwest San Fernando Valley, burning more than 7,500 acres, shutting down freeways and driving thousands of residents from their homes.

Slightly cooler temperatures and lighter winds turning onshore later were expected to aid firefighters in their third day battling the fire, which extends from Porter Ranch to Sylmar, officials said. As of Saturday morning, the fire was 19% contained.

Red-flag warnings remain in effect until 6 p.m. Saturday, but Santa Ana winds are expected to weaken throughout the day and be replaced by an onshore sea breeze later in the day, officials said. Humidity levels ranged from 20% down to 5% within the fire zone.

“We are prepared for any flare-ups, as they occur,” Los Angeles Fire Capt. Branden Silverman said Saturday.

The cause of the fire has not been determined, officials said. But investigators are checking on reports that flames were seen coming from a power line as the fire started on Thursday night. Sylmar residents told KNBC and KABC that they saw a fire burning at the base of a transmission tower near Saddle Ridge Drive, an area investigators are examining as a possible ignition point.

“We are aware of a story out there in the media from a witness who saw fire … from a transmission tower,” Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said Friday night. “We believe that witness, and someone else who said something similar.”

The tower belongs to Southern California Edison and was energized Thursday night, said Edison spokeswoman Sally Jeun, who added it was too early to assign responsibility for the fire.

“Determining the cause and origin of the fire is a lengthy process. A priority right now is ensuring the safety of our customers, employees, and first responders,” she said Saturday.

Though the utility shut off power for thousands of customers beginning Wednesday specifically to lower the risk of destructive fires, the area of Sylmar where the fire started was not included in the shutdown.

“We did not de-energize any power for the Saddle Ridge fire area,” Jeun said.

As of Saturday morning about 870 Edison customers across four counties were still without power as a precaution, she said. Most are in Ventura County, though affected customers are also in Kern, L.A. and San Bernardino counties. After the current Santa Ana wind event passes, crews must go out to check the power lines and ensure there’s no downed or damaged equipment before the lines can be reenergized, she said.

Mandatory evacuations remain in effect for roughly 23,000 homes north of the 118 Freeway from Tampa Avenue west to the Ventura County line. But some residents began returning to their homes Friday night.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom both issued emergency declarations. The governor’s office said it has obtained a federal grant to help offset the costs of fighting the Saddleridge Fire and others in the state.

One firefighter suffered a minor injury to his eye while battling the blaze, and a man in his late 50s died after suffering a heart attack while talking with firefighters early Friday, officials said.

Friday afternoon, the wind was pushing the fire west into residential neighborhoods in Porter Ranch and farther west to less-populated areas approaching Rocky Peak Park near the Ventura County line, Silverman said.

He said the wildfire was similar to the 2008 Sayre Fire, which leveled the Oakridge Estates mobile home park and was one of the most destructive wildfires in Los Angeles history.

Longtime Porter Ranch resident Caroline Walden, as she prepared Saturday morning to leave the emergency shelter in Granada Hills where she spent the night, said she had lost one home in a fire about a decade ago.

This time she was ready — the emergency kit of essentials was assembled and the photo albums were in the car. She and her two daughters left their home early Friday morning as the blaze marched toward more populated areas.

At the recreation center, her two daughters sat with their two pugs, Franny and Albert, along with their cat.

“I have my real children and fuzzy children,” said Walden, 56. “That’s what matters.”

The Saddleridge fire broke out about 9 p.m. Thursday on the north side of the 210 Freeway in Sylmar. It has since at times forced shutdowns of portions of the 210, 5, 405, 14 and 118 freeways.

Except for some truck routes and a few on- and off-ramps, all freeways were reopened by Saturday morning.

Meanwhile, the 825-acre Sandalwood fire in Riverside County was 25% contained as of Saturday morning, officials said. The fire has burned more than 70 structures, mostly mobile homes, and claimed one life. Two other smaller fires in Riverside County — the Wolf and Reche fires — were almost fully contained Saturday morning.

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