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3 Dead In Southern California Wildfires

Water is dropped on a large brush fire in the early morning hours Friday in Sylmar, Calif. At least 25 structures have been destroyed.
David Swanson
Water is dropped on a large brush fire in the early morning hours Friday in Sylmar, Calif. At least 25 structures have been destroyed.

Updated at 12:22 a.m. ET on Sunday

Three people have died after a quick-moving wildfire churned through the foothills of Southern California. As firefighters worked to tamp down largely contained blazes, evacuation orders were lifted in all of Los Angeles County and in parts of Riverside County, where a second fire raged.

The Los Angeles blaze, which officials have named the Saddleridge Fire, ignited late Thursday, destroying more than 30 structures. It began in the northernmost Los Angeles County neighborhood of Sylmar, in the San Fernando Valley.

As of Saturday night local time, the fire torched more than 7,900 acres and is 33% contained, according to Cal Fire.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had issued emergency declarations Friday. Newsom said in a statement the state secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency "to help ensure the availability of resources to fight the Saddleridge Fire."

Garcetti, tweeted an image of him signing paperwork that would ensure agencies "take all the necessary steps to protect lives and property threatened by this fire."

At least 31 structures have been damaged and more property assessments are planned. Of the affected structures, 13 of them were completely destroyed, according to the latest alert by the LAFD.

More than 1,000 firefighters were assigned to combat the fire, including personnel from the Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department and United States Forest Service.

"This is a very dynamic fire," Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said at a Friday news conference.

Strong Santa Ana winds, coupled with the area's dry chaparral landscape, have helped fuel the fire. The flames have forced the closure of several miles of the 118 and 210 freeways. Officials say the fire started out about 1 acre in size, but soon morphed into a wind-driven fire that "quickly pushed across Sylmar."

Evacuation orders affected communities on both sides of Interstate 5, including neighborhoods like Granada Hills and Porter Ranch, which were also evacuated.

The National Weather Service said Saturday that wind gusts were weaker than in previous days, but added that "single digit humidities and warm temperatures will still result in Red Flag Warnings" across the Los Angeles region.

Jacob Margolis of NPR member station KPCC described the scene from a staging area for first responders at Hansen Dam, not far from the fire line.

"There are bulldozers, trailers," Margolis told NPR's Morning Edition on Friday.

"Really everyone is just trying to coordinate and figure out how to tackle the fires, especially before they creep into the neighborhood. And they've been doing that all night," he said.

Local officials say 276 minors at the Barry J. Nidorf juvenile detention center in Sylmar were evacuated earlier in the day to another facility approximately 40 miles away in Downey.

"It was done out of an abundance of caution," said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors member Kathryn Barger at an afternoon news conference.

She also said Olive View Hospital is currently under a shelter-in-place order, but patients at a nearby urgent care center for mental health were evacuated and patients were moved to the main hospital.

Emergency officials say one civilian went into cardiac arrest and died at the hospital, and one firefighter sustained a minor injury to his eye. The officials did not provide details about those cases.

No cause of the fire has been determined.

Terrazas said emergency officials received the first reports of the fire around 9 p.m. Thursday.

"Our first arriving companies reported significant fire with multiple homes threatened," Terrazas said. "We went into an aggressive offensive attack while simultaneously setting up our structure protection."

East of Los Angeles, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department say what officials are referring to as the Sandalwood Fire was 68% containedat roughly 1,000 acres on Saturday night. Two peoplehave been found dead at the charred site of the blaze at a mobile home park in Calimesa. An evacuation order remains in place at the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park, where at least 74 structureshave been destroyed.

Firefighters check on homes in smoke from the Saddleridge Fire in Sylmar, Calif.
Michael Owen Baker / AP
Firefighters check on homes in smoke from the Saddleridge Fire in Sylmar, Calif.

For days, California utility companies have been preemptively cutting off power out of fear that high wind gusts could blow power lines into trees, sparking dangerous fires.

On Friday, Southern California Edison cut off power to more than 21,000 customers under its Public Safety Power Shutdown in Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. As of Saturday evening, that number was down to 54 customers, according to the utility.

The fire raised concerns that the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Porter Ranch might cause another gas leak like the one that spewed methane into the air in 2015 and 2016. Last year, the company reached a $119.5 million settlement with several government entities over the leak.

On Friday, SoCalGas tweeted: "No indications of damage or leaks at the facility."

Earlier in the week PG&E, the state's largest utility, began proactively shutting off power to roughly 800,000 customers in Northern and Central California, impacting nearly 2.5 million people, according to one estimate.

NPR's Emma Bowman contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.