Three deaths have been linked to two wildfires that ravaged parts of Southern California, shut down schools, and forced thousands to evacuate their homes this month.
Aiman Elsabbagh, 54, died Oct. 11 during the Saddle Ridge Fire. According to authorities, the Porter Ranch man suffered a heart attack while trying to douse flames with a garden hose as the blaze approached his home on the 11000 block of Thunderbird Ave.
Two people were also killed in the Sandalwood Fire, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department reported. One of the bodies, found in the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park, has been identified as 89-year-old Lois Arvikson of Calimesa. Her son, Don Turner, told authorities that she told him over the phone she was evacuating, but he never heard from her again.
Remains of another victim found in the same mobile home park have not yet been identified.
The causes of both fires remain under investigation, according to police.
Saddle Ridge Fire
The Saddle Ridge fire, which is still burning, ripped through the San Fernando Valley in the northwest corner of Los Angeles between Sylmar and Porter Ranch.
The blaze started at about 9:00 p.m. on Oct. 10 near Yarnell Street north of the I-210 Freeway in Sylmar. It rapidly spread west, jumping the I-5 into Granada Hills and Porter Ranch.
As of Monday morning, 90 percent of the wildfire was contained, according to CalFire.
So far, 8,799 acres and 19 structures have been destroyed and 88 damaged. Aside from the one reported death, eight people were injured, CalFire has reported. About 685 total fire personnel from four agencies have been assigned to the blaze.
“Firefighters continue to negotiate rugged terrain to increase containment lines and address hot spots,” CalFire reported. “Tactical patrols will remain in place to monitor the area for smoldering debris.”
The Sandalwood blaze in Riverside County broke out on the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 10 when the driver of a garbage truck dumped a smoldering load of trash near Sandalwood Drive and Seventh Street, near the I-10 off-ramp, in Calimesa. The incident sparked a grass fire which quickly spread in dry, windy conditions. It’s not yet clear why the trash was on fire or why the driver dumped it there.
The fire lasted nine days, destroyed 76 structures in the mobile home park, including the clubhouse, and damaged another 16. The fire affected 1,011 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection (CalFire).
As of Sunday evening, a red flag warning was still in effect as conditions of low humidity and gusty northerly winds continued in the area.
Authorities are urging the public to drive cautiously and yield to emergency personnel working around the burn area.
State of Emergency
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a state of emergency last week, stating on Twitter: “I’ve signed an emergency declaration for the #SaddleridgeFire directing @LACity agencies to take all necessary steps to protect lives and property threatened by this fire, and calling on our County and State partners to support us with the resources and collaboration we need.”
Los Angeles Unified School Districts (LAUSD) closed more than 35 schools during the fire, but United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the union representing LAUSD teachers, staged a demonstration outside Van Gogh Charter School in Granada Hills last week to protest the school district’s response to the emergency.
Wearing surgical masks and carrying signs as they chanted, “The hill, the hill, the hill is on fire, LAUSD doesn’t care about my child,” the teachers complained not enough schools were closed and children were returned too early to smoky-smelling classrooms with layers of ash still on the tables.
Special Education teacher Lisa Bennett, who moved classes outdoors, accused school district officials of poor management.
“This has been a real crisis of leadership,” Bennett said in a statement posted on the UTLA website. “Someone should have made an executive decision before doors opened and said we need to shut this down, end of story. It’s our health we’re talking about and the health of our students and their young lungs. It’s time LAUSD steps up and puts protocols in place so this never happens again.”
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl also panned the school district, calling its actions shameful.
“We reached out to district personnel starting at 5 a.m. to get them to close schools. That they didn’t, under these fire and smoke conditions, is shameful,” Caputo-Pearl said in a statement issued Oct. 11.
“We had many instances of two classes of students packed into one smoky classroom that couldn’t use the air conditioning — because many educators couldn’t make it to school because of road closures. After that kind of chaotic and unhealthy day, we have the district requiring some schools’ entire staffs to stay after the students are dismissed — for no reason. This is appalling. Many other districts, charters, and private schools closed. That the district didn’t reflects a lack of understanding of schools, a disregard for student and employee health, and a willingness to confuse parents. The district needed real leadership today — and we didn’t get it.”