The Battle Against The Castaic Wildfire

On Monday, Aug. 26, 1996, at 12:36 P.M., with Los Angeles baking in the middle of a heat wave, a brushfire was reported on the northbound lanes of Interstate Highway 5 near Castaic Lake. This is in the northwestern part of Los Angeles County as the interstate makes its way up the 17-mile-long "Grapevine" and into Kern County and the Central Valley of California.

The area where the fire was reported is a grassy bowl situated between the northbound and southbound lanes of the interstate in an area known as Marple Canyon. This separation is nearly a half-mile across at this point. The Los Angeles County Fire Department dispatched a full first-alarm brush assignment consisting of five engines, five camp crews and two helicopters. Also dispatched were a full brush assignment from the U.S. Forest Service and a Los Angeles City helicopter.

Photo by Gene Blevins/CFPA
California Department of Forestry units set backfires along Interstate 5 on day three of the fire.

Photo by Mike Meadows
U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Forestry and Los Angeles County Fire Department apparatus line the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 as flames run alongside the freeway.

The Forest Service response was discontinued when it was determined the fire was not in forest land. The first Los Angeles County fire unit on scene, Patrol 149, driven by Firefighter Brian Jorden, reported a quarter acre burning with 10 to 15 mph winds. He told dispatch to continue all units.

Four minutes later, Captain Derek Reyna, on Engine 149, reported on scene and said he had a one-acre fire moving uphill. Realizing the potential and what was probably going to happen if they couldn't catch it, Reyna requested a second alarm. Reyna said he had his engine come in the dirt road from the south. There was no access from the north. He and his crew were playing catchup with the fire as the flames were moving north up the canyon and away from them and picking up speed every second.

Just six minutes after Engine 149 reached the scene, Battalion 6 John Harris arrived on scene and reported he had five acres "moving." In 10 minutes, the fire had grown from a quarter acre to five acres. The spread of the fire in the next eight hours was not to be believed.

At 1 P.M., just 24 minutes after the fire was reported, a report came in from command of 50 acres moving fast and the tense words "we have a problem." At this time, command requested four air tankers and four type 1 strike teams (type 1 indicates front-line engines). Four minutes later, command requested a mutual aid second-alarm brush assignment from the U.S. Forest Service. At 1:11, command reported the fire had jumped the interstate. The fire had, by this time, picked up a head of steam, jumped the 100-foot-wide southbound lanes of the freeway and was now out of control and blasting its way toward thousands of acres of prime forest land.

Photo by Gene Blevins/CFPA
On day three of the fire, a tanker makes a drop within 30 yards of photographer Gene Blevins' position on a hillside to protect him from one of the flanks of the fire as it moved toward him.

Photo by Gene Blevins/CFPA
A bulldozer makes a run to head off the fire, then in its first day, as it moves quickly up the hillside.

Twenty minutes later, a report came in that the fire was spreading fast in all directions. At 1:37, engines reported that structures were being threatened on Ridge Route Road. This writer arrived at the structures just before the fire in hopes of getting pictures of the effort to save the homes. We me along with Los Angeles County and U.S. Forest Service engines were driven out minutes later by a wall of oncoming flames as the fire blowtorched out of a canyon, jumped Ridge Route Road and continued its rampage unchecked. Firefighters from Los Angeles County Engine 111 stayed in almost untenable conditions to protect a home. It was saved.

At 1:45, a report came in that the fire had covered 300 acres in one hour and 10 minutes. At this time, strike teams were positioned along Ridge Route Road and Templin Highway. A firing-out operation was going to be tried to keep the flames south of Ridge Route Road and east of Templin Highway. Starting at the intersection of the two roads, flares and flare guns were used to ignite the heavy brush and try to keep it from jumping.

Photo by Gene Blevins/CFPA
Los Angeles County firefighter Mike Erb sets backfires during the second day of the fire as winds pick up at night, causing the fire to run out of control along Old Ridge Road.

The work was going smoothly as camp crews moved down Templin Highway burning the brush. Seconds later, somebody noticed a small spot on the other side of Templin. Crews rushed in to douse it but handlines, wagon batteries and water drops failed to stop it. Fire crews watched in disbelief as the fire took off and started running into thousands of unburned acres. There was basically nothing to stop it now. Fire officials could only hope that the wind would calm by nightfall.

By late afternoon, command reported 3,500 acres burned and flames were moving in all directions. Firefighters were playing catchup now as the fire outflanked them at every position. The aircraft were doing the best they could given the circumstances but the head and flanks of the blaze were moving too fast. Spotting was occurring due to the gusting winds.

By 8:15 P.M., Greg Cleveland, a public information officer for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, reported that 10,100 acres and several vehicles had been destroyed. There were 600 firefighters on the scene. The fire was burning at the rate of 1,000 acres an hour.

The winds did lay down somewhat later that night but everyone on the scene knew what was in store for them the next day. The fire destroyed almost as many acres the first day as it would for the next five.

That night numerous strike teams and aircraft were ordered. The fire was now burning in mostly inaccessible terrain. With the calmer winds, most of the firing out was conducted at night to keep the flames away from homes. The only other significant incident occurred on Aug. 27 at around 10 P.M. While camp crews were working on a ridge high above the fire, the flames blasted up a hillside and destroyed the four crew trucks. Nobody was injured in the incident.

On it went for seven days until Sept. 2, when the fire was declared fully contained.

This brief synopsis of the first few hours of the fire was done to show how fast this fire spread without the benefit of the famous Santa Ana Winds. Conditions were just right for this fire to move the way it did.

At the height of the fire, 31 agencies were on scene. There were 2,200 firefighters on the lines manning 171 engines, 25 dozers, 16 water tenders, 11 helicopters, 11 air tankers and 71 hand crews some from as far away as Florida. There were 23 minor injuries. The fire destroyed 22,500 acres. A juvenile, 15, was charged with starting the blaze.

And the brush fire season was just beginning. Traditionally, September, October and November are the bad brushfire months; that's when the Santa Ana Winds normally blow.

Mike Meadows is a California-based freelance writer and photographer with an interest in the fire service.