The Battle Against The Castaic Wildfire

Mike Meadows gives a first person account of a wildfire in Los Angeles that rapidly destroyed 22,500 acres in seven days.


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...


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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.

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


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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.

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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.


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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.

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