Many residents of Sylmar, Lake View Terrace, and Sunland-Tujunga will sleep in their own beds tonight for the first time since they were ordered to flee a fast-moving wildfire that whipped through the foothills of the northeast San Fernando Valley.
Cal Fire says the Creek Fire has burned more than 15,000 acres, and it's now 40 percent contained. Evacuation orders have been lifted for most of the area, a sign of progress in the efforts to contain the fire.
Carole Van Dusen lives in Kagel Canyon, an unincorporated area near Sylmar not far from where the fire started Tuesday morning. She got the call to evacuate at 4 a.m.
"My neighbor said, 'Leave! The fire's all around! Get your animals out right now,'" Van Dusen said.
She and her husband Brian packed up their two cats and two dogs in their van. Van Dusen says she could see the glow of the wildfire lighting up the hillside above her home as they drove away, and the air was thick with smoke.
“I could barely see or breathe,” she said.
They headed to a Red Cross evacuation center at the Sunland Senior Center a few miles from home. But a few hours later, the senior center itself was included in the rapidly growing Creek Fire evacuation zone. Van Dusen and her family were forced to relocate again.
The couple finally settled in at a temporary shelter in the gymnasium of the Branford Recreation Center in Arleta. Over the next three nights, Van Dusen took to calling it ‘The Branford Hilton.’
"I just have a few clothes,” she laughed. “Brian just has what he's wearing."
While she waited for permission to get back into her neighborhood, Van Dusen relied on secondhand information from neighbors who stayed behind to find out if her little blue house was still standing.
"I heard it was OK, by some miracle,” she said. “But I don't know for sure."
She also tried calling her answering machine, and it picked up. She took that as a good sign.
On Thursday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that thousands of Creek Fire evacuees would be allowed back home. But roadblocks keeping residents away from Van Dusen’s canyon neighborhood remained up through the evening.
Finally, on Friday morning, she ventured out for a test-run to see if the roads were clear to take her husband and animals home again.
As she rounded the corner from Kagel Canyon Road, Van Dusen set eyes on her house for the first time since the panicked predawn call that sent her rushing out of the path of the fire.
Her home was unscathed, but Van Dusen could see it was a very close call. The hillside out her back porch had black char marks about 200 feet away from her property.
“Oh my God. Look, it’s that close.” she said. “I know there is probably some kind of damage from the smoke, but we were just lucky.”
A part of Van Dusen’s fence was damaged by the Santa Ana winds, and the yard was covered in a thin layer of ash and soot.
She stopped to share a moment of relief with her neighbors across the street.“I just want to hug everybody,” she said.
While Van Dusen and her neighbors were spared, several houses further up Kagel Canyon Road burned down to the bricks. Fire crews continued to mop-up efforts in the area, looking for fuel that could reignite.
San Francisco firefighter Steve Kikawa, a Huntington Beach native, drove down from the Bay Area with his engine early Tuesday morning to help with the Southern California firefighting effort.
Kikawa said the very low humidity and windy conditions in the L.A area were some of the worst he’s seen in his career, drier than the Sonoma fires, which he helped fight in October.
“It’s really a perfect storm for fire activity,” Kikawa said. He and fellow firefighters were using water hoses and hand axes called ‘Pulaskis’ to douse hot spots and dig up smoldering tree roots.
“Overall, everyone’s feeling pretty positive about the way this incident is going, but we’re seeing a lot of stuff all throughout the state,” he said.