PORTER RANCH, California — Two fast-moving wildfires near Los Angeles — separated by less than 100 miles — have each killed at least one person as thousands of people scrambled to evacuate their homes and, in some cases, watch them go up in flames.
The Saddleridge fire broke out late Thursday night in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles, and quickly consumed more than 7,500 acres. One man in his fifties died of a heart attack, fire officials confirmed. Fox News reported that he had been trying to save his home with his garden hose when he collapsed.
To the south of Los Angeles, the Sandalwood fire ignited in Calimesa when a garbage truck dumped trash that was ablaze, which then spread to the surrounding vegetation, fire officials said. One person had been found dead and two more are still unaccounted for.
At the Saddleridge fire on Friday morning, some families in Porter Ranch began returning to their homes as firefighters were still pulling hoses across soaked, charred lawns and driveways covered in broken garden statues and bent metal.
The blaze moved at a rate of about 800 acres per hour as it closed in on communities like Porter Ranch and Sylmar.
“These weather conditions are significant,” Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said at a news conference. “You can imagine the embers from the wind have been traveling at significant distances, which cause other fires to start.”
More than 1,000 firefighters from several agencies were on the ground Friday, using helicopters and other aircraft to douse the blaze with water and retardant.
Stationed across ridges in front of homes, firefighters fought flames with hoses as powerful gusts propelled fire through and up hills.
Taking a break from battling the blaze all night, a few weary, red-eyed Los Angeles County firefighters ate sandwiches and oranges and explained that while they do the best the can to protect homes, these weather conditions make it extremely challenging.
"When there's this much fire and this many houses at risk, we have to make tough choices," said Los Angeles County fire Capt. David Romero. "If one is on fire we have to try and save the other houses around it."
Fleeing these fires has become a ritual for Californians, especially as the seasons shift and the dry summer leaves parched, dusty hills and valleys filled with brush, perfect fuel for a wildfire that can race through communities thanks to low humidity and high winds.
And while some residents said they did not receive advance warning of the flames from officials, firefighters said ensuring everyone is notified ahead of a fast-moving wildfire is difficult during emergencies.
"We are continuously working on getting better at communicating, and multi-agency, multi-city trainings, but given the circumstances and population density and where people live in these urban-interface areas, systems will fail," said Cal Fire Capt. Josh Faulkner. "We will have communication problems and break downs and utilities will be at fault. It will be a kind of mass pandemonium with these wildfires."
Like many California communities, Porter Ranch is tucked against a barren canyon, which makes homes extremely vulnerable to blazes like the Saddleridge Fire.
"If you're in the valley, it's just one of the risks you have to take," said Emilio Lazaro, standing in his parents' driveway as firefighters doused flames that had kicked up in his now-destroyed bedroom.
The 21-year-old, still in his pajamas, evacuated his home late Thursday with his parents. Neighbors around him were scurrying to warn and wake one another — one elderly man who lives alone needed help with his dog, another woman and her kids ran next door to check on another family.
Lazaro grabbed his computer, phone, video game consoles, and some clothes.
While his house structurally, survived, the damage is significant. His dining room table stands in a sea of debris. The roof is gaping, his father's study almost unrecognizable. Everything in his room, where he's slept since he was 10, is gone.
A firefighter walked up and handed the college student a framed photo of him and his girlfriend in the Snapchat dog filter.
Down the street, Abraham Ohanyan and his 19-year-old son, Mardo, breathed a sigh of relief as they arrived back to their unscathed home.
The family had fled as an eerie, terrifying red glow suddenly burst outside their windows. The father fell asleep by 11 p.m., and when his son woke him up, "everywhere was fire."
He is grateful for his sons, one of whom alerted his brother when he saw the flames looming above their neighborhood while driving home from a late movie.
"The majority of my neighbors are elderly so we all really came together to make sure everyone got out," Mardo said. Pointing across the street, he added: "He's elderly and can barely hear and lives alone. My brother helped him carry out his stuff and his dog."
Even though they are seasoned wildfire veterans, the speed and ferocity of these recent blazes still shocked the Ohanyans.
"It's like you look up and all the sudden fire is everywhere," the father said. "But we all help each other, we are all human, that is what is important."