Editor’s note: This story was originally published December 5. It is being continuously updated with the latest information.
Residents in the northeastern San Fernando Valley evacuated by the Creek Fire are returning to their homes as firefighters put a lid on the blaze that has charred 15,323 acres and reduced 15 homes to rubble and damaged 15 others.
It is now 40 percent contained.
“Obviously this is a fire that’s burning with much less intensity,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Thursday night, announcing that the vast majority of evacuation orders had been lifted.
As many as 150,000 residents had been ordered to flee their homes this week as a fierce windstorm fanned flames and spread embers. Firefighters were able to make huge gains in their battle against the fire overnight as those winds subsided.
Sill, there’s not a drop of rain in Southern California’s forecast, and a Red Flag warning is in effect through Saturday. “Be vigilant,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby warned residents on Thursday.
“It has been very difficult. Those winds can push an ember miles ahead of the fire, creating its own fire,” Los Angeles County Fire Captain Chris Reed told KTLA on Thursday afternoon.
The fire chewed through neighborhoods and wilderness areas in, around, and above Sylmar. It started shortly before 4 a.m. Tuesday near Little Tujunga Canyon Road, and that afternoon, flames jumped the 210 freeway and raced through the Tujunga Wash into Shadow Hills.
“The fire was in Sylmar, 15 miles away,” Shadow Hills resident Judy Hofman-Sanders told the Los Angeles Times. “We came over to get another load, and within half an hour, the wind ... It’s like Armageddon.” Hofman-Sanders lives on McBroom Street, where several homes were decimated.
Mandatory evacuation orders affected a large swath of the northeastern Valley. That area included the communities north of Foothill Boulevard, from Sylmar to Lake View Terrance to Sunland-Tujunga. It also included Shadow Hills, south of Foothill.
That portion of the Valley is home to ranches and an equestrian community, and many residents scrambled to bring their animals to safety. At Rancho Padilla in Sylmar, nearly 40 horses burned to death after getting “trapped in a barn that caught fire from embers caused by the Creek Fire,” ABC7 reported.
The Los Angeles Unified School District announced Wednesday afternoon that at least 265 schools—including all San Fernando Valley schools—and 17 schools close to the Skirball Fire will be closed through the end of the week.
The blaze is fueled not only by strong winds, but by dry brush thanks to wet season that has produced, according to the National Weather Service, just 0.03 inches of rain.
Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said firefighters would be “at the mercy of the weather.”
Officials had warned that with the erratic winds and dry brush, the fire would continue to spread. On Tuesday, they predicted it wouldn’t be the only fire to break out amid these conditions—they were right.
On Wednesday morning, a brush fire ignited at the 405 freeway across from the Getty Center, forcing evacuations in Bel Air.
“We are facing critical fire behavior in ways that people may not have experienced in the past, this is the fifth year of an ongoing drought … we have flashy fuels, erratic wind behavior,” Osby said early on.
Osby said it’s not unusual to get powerful winds in December. Santa Ana season typically runs from October to April, but “we’ve had very minimal rains. We just haven’t had the rainfall.”
The Creek Fire is one of a handful of fires tearing through Southern California. The largest is the Thomas Fire in Ventura County. It has consumed more than 95,500 acres since it was sparked Monday evening near Steckel Park in Santa Paul. It “spread from the hillsides above Santa Paula, down toward the small city and west to Ventura.”
“We have this fire and the devastating fire in Ventura County have definitely tapped resources throughout the region,” Richardson says.