Flames threaten multimillion-dollar homes as residents flee brush fire in Southern California

Fire crews planned to work through the night to stamp out a swift-moving brush fire that chewed through steep, rugged terrain late Monday morning, injuring two people and forcing residents out of 200 homes in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles.

“They will not sleep, they will not rest until they get this fire out,” Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Patrick Barber told reporters at a news briefing early Monday afternoon broadcast on the department’s Facebook page.

The fire’s cause was not immediately known, but arson investigators were on scene to find its source and root out the cause, Barber said.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles fire officials ordered mandatory evacuations for eight residential blocks: 200 homes in the area of Charmel Lane to the west, Bienveneda Avenue to the east, Merivale Lane to the south and the end of Lachman Lane to the north.

An evacuation center was opened at Pacific Palisades Recreation Center, 851 Alma Real Drive in Pacific Palisades.

Just hours earlier Monday, 150 Los Angeles city and county and National Park Service firefighters on the ground and in the skies were battling to save the hillside neighborhood in the Palisades Highlands.

Palisades Fire races up hillsides

The 40-acre blaze started at the base of Palisades Drive gobbling up 18 acres in 15 minutes’ time, Barber said.

By 11 a.m., the Palisades Fire had raced up a steep canyon grade and threatened to reach backyards as homeowners tried to beat back the roiling flames with garden hoses from their rooftops. Live footage from Los Angeles television station KABC showed the flames’ march up the steep grade as airborne water drops targeted the fire’s leading edge.

A group of about seven people who tried to fight the fire from one home’s roof were forced to run for their lives. One family frantically backed a car onto a neighborhood street as flames leaped atop the canyon.

But air cover quickly arrived with firefighting helicopters dumping load after load of water onto the flames as hand crews worked on the fire lines below. Minutes later, some of those residents forced to flee returned with high-pressure hoses to join firefighters’ ground attack, KABC showed.

No structures had been lost as crews appeared to win containment of the blaze. But hand crews were expected to be on scene for the next eight to 12 hours, Los Angeles County fire officials told KABC television.

“This is an extremely challenging fire for hand crews,” Barber told reporters later at the afternoon briefing. “They’re essentially clawing their way up the hillside with rocks coming down on them.”

A hand crew was forced to retreat from flames that jumped toward them about 1 p.m., the Los Angeles Times reported. One firefighter was taken to an area hospital with heat exhaustion. A second person complained of respiratory distress, according to the Times’ report.

4 p.m. fire briefing

The fire has grown to 40 acres on the edge of blocks of residential homes, Los Angeles fire officials said in a briefing just before 4 p.m. Winds remain calm but with temperatures along the coast near Malibu in the mid-80s with low humidity, firefighters continued an aggressive attack in the fire zone.

“We’re still in a really hot, dry pattern for Southern California. October is generally the month that we really feel this,” Barber said. He added forecasters are expecting increased winds Thursday.

“That’s why we’re going to put a lot of resources on this - to make sure this fire is wind-tested because the winds are going to be coming back on Thursday,” Barber said.

The fire on a calm day in the Southland came after red flag warnings over the weekend throughout Southern California that had residents, firefighters and Southern California Edison on alert.

Warm and windy weather is expected through the week in the Los Angeles area.

“When it’s windy and dry like this, very little spark or ember can start a fire, and it can get out of control before we can get on it,” Los Angeles County firefighter Jeffrey Ziegler told KABC. “We do everything we can. We put engines and helicopters, and aircraft on it, but the windier it is, the harder it is to catch these fires early, so that’s why we ask people to be extra careful right now.”

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.