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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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.

12_96_castaic4.jpg
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.