Rora Melendy was at Los Gringos Locos on Friday afternoon when she looked up and wondered, “Is that smoke?” A quick check of the “LCF Community Watch” Facebook page confirmed it — a brush fire was burning in the Tujunga area. The La Tuna Fire had begun.
About 1,000 firefighters from agencies across Southern California battled the blaze over a steamy Labor Day weekend as it scorched more than 7,000 acres; temporarily closed a significant stretch of the 210 Freeway, jamming Friday traffic; destroyed five homes and led to 10 injuries. In La Cañada Flintridge, Sunday’s final Music in the Park concert was canceled, as was the La Cañada High School home football game. An investigation into the fire’s cause is underway, authorities said.
In LCF, the community watched anxiously, remembering the Station Fire that began just a few miles north of the city in 2009. For more than 50 days, that fire burned a county record 161,189 acres and took the lives of two firefighters. It also destroyed 215 structures and accounted for more than $95 million in damage, all told.
Spurred partially by those recollections, many local residents mobilized this past weekend to help firefighters and other public safety personnel on the ground, collecting and distributing water and other supplies.
L.A. County Fire Department firefighters from Station 19 in LCF were among the first responders, according to Tyson Farwell, a member of the station’s paramedic squad.
Because the fire was within the city of L.A., his colleagues’ efforts after that were directed mostly to “progressive hose lay,” he said, helping establish the fire line to help curb the blaze, which, as of Wednesday morning, was 80% contained.
Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Department personnel also were called into action, helping the Burbank Police Department with street closures and evacuations and maintaining a presence at the main command post at Hansen Dam in order to relay necessary information as quickly as possible.
“Everybody was on pins and needles,” Capt. Chris Blasnek said. “It was all hands on deck.”
After learning of the fire Friday, Melendy drove straight to her home and “packed up everything, had the animals corralled, the papers, pictures and prescriptions put together and got ready to go.”
And then she — like a couple hundred other local residents — got to work.
Over the course of the weekend they collected everything from water and ice to tube socks, bags for dirty clothes and non-drowsy Claritin, and delivered it to Crescenta Valley Community Regional Park. The YMCA of the Foothills also had a collection going.
“Basically, whenever someone came in and said they needed something, we would try to find that,” said Melendy, who also teamed with volunteers who loaded up minivans and car trunks with water, Gatorade, soda, (especially popular) caffeinated energy drinks, sandwiches, snacks, lip balm and gum, all to be delivered to Glendale Police officers manning barricades in evacuated neighborhoods.
“They are all amazing,” Melendy said of the firefighters and police. “And they were so touched by what we did as a community, and just so grateful.”
All the while, everyone kept a wary eye on the fire.
“I lived on Inverness [Drive] during the Station Fire,” Melendy said. “I tell people I had a mezzanine seat and not a front-row seat for that. And I actually felt way more threatened this time. You can’t tell exactly how many ridges and valleys there are between you and it and at night it looked like it was right at the top of the ridge when it was actually a couple of ridges back.”
Last weekend’s events also brought back memories for LCF resident Kevin Chun. He formerly worked as LCF’s director of administrative services but was serving as acting city manager during the Station Fire because City Manager Mark Alexander was out of the country on vacation.
“I remember how fast the Station Fire spread after the first day and being very concerned about homes in LCF,” Chun said in an email. “I remember the teams of firefighters in LCF from around the state positioned in neighborhoods waiting to attack the fire as it came down or up the foothills; I remember dedicated staff and City Council members working in City Hall all hours of the night to report the situation to residents and being extremely saddened after learning that firefighters Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones lost their lives near their camp and the outpouring of community support for the firefighters’ work in saving LCF.”
Blasnek said he was awed by some of the sights he witnessed over this past weekend.
“You can’t wrap your head around it if you don’t see it for yourself,” he said. “It was a very eerie feeling being on the 210 Freeway and having it be a ghost town, being able to stand out in the center divider and watch the firefighters work. And now it looks like a war zone, like, holy smokes, it’s just black everywhere, even the freeway signs are singed.
“But for the most part, we fared pretty well.”