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Sierra Madre fire flares back up

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image ap"><span>AP</span></div><span class="caption-text">A firefighter sprays water on a house to protect it from a wind driven brush fire in the foothills of Sierra Madre. (Dan Steinberg)</span></div>
April 28, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Firefighters are trying to get the upper hand on a stubborn wildfire burning in the northern edge of Sierra Madre. Mandatory evacuations remain in effect for residents west of Baldwin Ave., north of Carter Ave., North of Fairview Ave., to Michillinda Ave. From Grand View North to Carter Ave., only residents are allowed.Classes have been canceled at all public and private schools in Sierra Madre on Monday, April 28.

Schools that will be closed include:
  • Alverno High School
  • The Gooden School
  • Bethany Christian School
  • St. Rita Elementary
  • Sierra Madre Community Nursery School

Homes in the following areas are being evacuated:

  • Western Section
    Oak Crest Drive north of Carter Avenue to East Mira Monte Avenue to Mountain Trail
    Carter Avenue and Lima Street to Michillina Street
  • Eastern Section
    Sierra Madre Lower and Upper Canyons
  • All areas North of Grand View Avenue from Mountain Trail east to Santa Anita Avenue

Evacuation shelters have been set up at:

  • Hart Senior Park House
    222 W. Sierra Madre Blvd.
  • Congregational Church
    170 W. Sierra Madre Blvd.

Click here for the City of Sierra Madre's Web site

More residents are being told to evacuate as the fire burns out of control. The evacuation order has been expanded westward from Carter Avenue and Lima Street to Michillinda Street. It is mandatory that all residents north of this area be evacuated. About 1,000 residents had previously been told to leave their homes.

The helicopters and air tankers have been hitting the fire hard and it continues to burn close to homes. More than 580 firefighters are battling the blaze, which has burned about 500 acres since it broke out Saturday afternoon in a popular hiking area in the Angeles National Forest.

Click here for a slideshow of the Sierra Madre fire.

A surprise flare-up overnight put firefighters back on the defensive. Heavy fuel burned close to homes, and more residents prepared themselves for the worst.

"We've lived here for eight years and, you know, all you have to do is look at these hills behind you and you could expect this to happen at any time. So, it's always in the back of your mind," said resident Bill Bridges.

Firefighters say they lost some ground overnight. Containment has fallen from 30 percent to 23 percent because a burst of wind during the night pushed flames past some containment lines.

Many residents in Sierra Madre have been keeping a diligent watch on the fire for the past two days. In the meantime, fire officials say they don't know when the evacuation orders will be lifted.

"The fire department seems like they got it under control and the flames are moving slowly," said resident Michael Dyer. "We have some things, papers and things like that, photographs ready to take out, but they're not even in the car yet."

Ron Cooper, a Sierra Madre resident, headed downtown early Monday morning to check on the blaze that may threaten more homes. He says it was a sleepless night of keeping watch.

"I've been up all night, you know, and between two and three this morning apparently the winds picked up sufficiently to fan the flames completely across the front of the mountain," said Cooper.

As daylight broke over the fire, helicopters and air tankers were back in the air. The rugged terrain has forced firefighters to rely on these attacks to try and slow the fire down, and the weather is not going to make it any easier.

"It's not extreme fire conditions or fire weather conditions, although we will probably see an increase in fire activity today simply because of those higher temperatures and little bit lower humidity," said Marc Peebles from the U.S. Forest Service.

Firefighters expect to have their hands full for days. Officials say it could take four to seven days to reach full containment. As the fire moves, it will put more neighborhoods and more lives at risk.

"Long hard day, the firefighters on the ground, they're going to be working really hard. The hand crews, the engine companies, they've got a lot of work ahead of them. This is going to be a long haul," said Peebles.

Part of the problem for fire crews is that the fire is burning in steep, rugged terrain with deep canyons and cliffs and very dense brush. The area burning represents a steady supply of fuel that hasn't burned in decades.

There are a couple containment lines, with the main effort on the southern flank to protect homes.

There have been no reports of any homes lost, but an outbuilding was destroyed in the fire. Four firefighters have suffered minor injuries while battling the blaze.

When the fire first broke, some evacuees admit they didn't take it seriously until they heard authorities knocking at their door Saturday night.

"They came to the house and said 'You need to get out.' And so we just had not taken it seriously up to that point, but I was watching. So we put clothes on and got out of the house, and brought the dog and pictures and papers that we couldn't replace easily," said evacuee Beverly Hoffman.

Members of a wedding party were flown out of the San Gabriel foothills Sunday when they became trapped by the brush fire. Ken and Julie Grady got married Saturday night. They and about 50 guests and four pets had hiked four miles up the mountain for the ceremony. It wrapped up just as the fire started and the wedding party was boxed in. The Forest Service came to their rescue and airlifted the newlyweds and their wedding guests.

The American Red Cross moved in to the city over the weekend to take care of displaced residents. Shelters have been set up for evacuees at Hart Senior Park and Congregational Church on West Sierra Madre Boulevard. The Congregational Church downtown housed several dozen people overnight, and SPCA has sent supplies for pets, who now wait with their owners.

Volunteers say they are prepared to stay for as long as they're needed.

"We're just feeding everyone and just providing them with some comfort so they have somewhere to stay," said Red Cross volunteer Candice McDonald.

Some 400 homes remain threatened in Sierra Madre. Fire officials expect to give another briefing later Monday to update evacuees on their situation.

In addition to the evacuations, all public and private schools in Sierra Madre are closed Monday.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Eyewitness News reporters John Gregory and Lisa Hernandez and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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