Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Nicholas Ferrari drove up Little Tujunga Canyon Road to size up the wind-whipped Creek fire shortly after it was reported before dawn.
He had already staged fire companies at Osborne Street near the 210 Freeway in the northeastern San Fernando Valley to wait for instructions.
Ferrari soon realized that the firefront was going to hit city limits – and the homes there – in less than 30 minutes.
At that point, there was no time for an organized evacuation plan on that Dec. 5 morning, he said. Instead, they had to go into full “rescue mode” to try to save as many lives as possible.
Not only was the fire being pushed forward by powerful Santa Ana winds, he said, but residents would be asleep and have “no idea what’s about to come at them.”
Firefighters from several agencies drove into neighborhoods and blared messages on PA systems to alert residents to the oncoming danger, many of whom had horses, goats and other animals that had to be evacuated. Los Angeles police and Los Angeles County sheriff’s employees and volunteers, along with other local government employees, knocked on doors alerting residences that were apparently in the blaze’s path.
“It was basically everybody feverishly working to get people out of harm’s way – until they too, got ran out of those areas,” said Ferrari, the agency’s first battalion chief on scene and evacuation branch director for at least the first 24 hours of the fire.
Among those helping with evacuations was Steve Goldsworthy, a nearly 30-year volunteer with the Montrose Search and Rescue Team based out of the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station.
After jumping out of bed, he headed to the station, got into uniform and was assigned to Kagel Canyon to evacuate homes.
It was “literally a firestorm,” Goldsworthy said. “The whole canyon needs to be evacuated but you have to try and prioritize.”
Goldsworthy and his partner, a reserve deputy, found an area on the west side of lower Kagel Canyon, where they saw flames bearing down right behind homes and started there, blaring their siren and pounding on doors.
“We were knocking on people’s doors and I had flames literally 10 feet away in their yard,” he said.
Goldsworthy recalled that they had knocked at one home, where no one answered. Some minutes later, his neighbor said he feared the elderly man who lived there was still inside.
The three of them went to the door and knocked again until the senior, who had been watching television, finally emerged.
“We said ‘it’s time to leave; your yard is on fire,’ ” Goldsworthy recalled, and escorted him out.
Goldsworthy estimated that he and his partner alerted some 100 households by banging on doors and running their siren in the Kagel Canyon area.
At one point, they tried to drive up into upper Kagel Canyon, above the cemetery where firefighters had converged, but they had to stop and turn around when they couldn’t see where they were going, he said.
“We had flames all the way across and the roads are pretty narrow,” he said.
In some of those areas the fire hit people “hard and fast” as early as 4 or 5 a.m.
“Without neighbors helping neighbors out there, the results would have been potentially different,” Goldsworthy said.
With the deadly Northern California fires in October on their minds, Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said they launched helicopters, super scoopers and ground resources in an effort to hit the blaze hard from the start.
Sharing resources with such agencies as Los Angeles County Fire Department and the Angeles National Forest was instrumental in preventing the blaze from swelling further.
“In the city of L.A., our philosophy is always hit it hard, hit it fast, with everything you’ve got to keep it small,” he said.
Terrazas said he decided right away to send fewer resources to the routine calls, focusing on the mammoth fire instead. He also activated the agency’s recall system, keeping firefighters on duty until the worst of the fire was over.
“Some of our people were on duty for like 96 hours because we were stretched thin,” he said.
It was also key that the Angeles National Forest, where the blaze originated, was well-staffed that night with firefighters, Terrazas said.
The Angeles National Forest augmented their staffing overnight in response to the Red Flag Warning issued by the National Weather Service, said Rachel C. Smith, deputy forest supervisor.
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Normally, by that time in December, staff would have been deployed back home and the forest would downsize its temporary seasonal workforce. But the forest retained an additional 47 firefighters in response to alarming weather conditions and forecasts.
But the wind-driven fire was hardly an easy one to fight. Flying embers carried down on multiple occasions, setting off additional fires, said Trevor Richmond, deputy chief for LAFD’s Operations Valley Bureau.
“The problem is a wind-driven fire will spot… up to a quarter mile ahead and that’s very difficult to control a fire like that,” he said.
High winds limited the aerial support that could be used, particularly the fixed-wing aircraft, he said.
But their relentless work paid off, and they eventually got the upper hand.
“The efforts of these firefighters was heroic. It was arduous, long, (and) it was hard work,” said Ferrari, the LAFD battalion chief. “They didn’t give up. Nobody gave up.”