LOS ANGELES —The largest and most destructive wildfire in Southern California has grown to 140 square miles and fire officials say the worst may be yet to come.
The 90,000-acre fire burning in Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles has swept through ridges and canyons to the sea and Santa Ana winds that drove it are expected to return with a vengeance overnight.
State fire director Ken Pimlott says winds that eased in the afternoon could return with gusts up to 80 mph Thursday that would make it impossible to fight the fire.
Nearly 1,800 firefighters and a fleet of aircraft are fighting the flames but the blaze is only 5 percent contained and an estimated 12,000 buildings are in danger.
Hundreds of homes across the L.A. metropolitan area and beyond were feared destroyed since Monday, but firefighters were only slowly managing to make their way into some of the hard-hit areas for an accurate count.
As many as five fires have closed highways, schools and museums, shut down production of TV series and cast a hazardous haze over the region. About 200,000 people were under evacuation orders. No deaths and only a few injuries were reported.
From the beachside city of Ventura, where rows of homes were leveled, to the rugged foothills north of Los Angeles, where more than two dozen horses died at a boarding stable, to Bel-Air, where the rich and famous have sweeping views of L.A. below, fierce Santa Ana winds sweeping in from the desert fanned the flames and fears.
"God willing, this will slow down so the firefighters can do their job," said Maurice Kaboud, who ignored an evacuation order and stood in his backyard with a garden hose at the ready.
Air tankers that were grounded most of Tuesday because of high winds flew on Wednesday, dropping flame retardant. Firefighters rushed to attack the fires before winds picked up again.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which uses a color-coded wind index, issued a purple forecast, the most severe, for the first time ever, Pimlott said.
"They're going to be extreme tomorrow," Pimlott said. "We need to have everybody's heads up — heads on a swivel — and pay very close attention."
Before dawn Wednesday, flames exploded on the steep slopes of Sepulveda Pass, closing a section of heavily traveled Interstate 405 and destroying four homes in Bel-Air, where houses range from $2 million to tens of millions of dollars.
Firefighters hosed down a burning Tudor-style house as helicopters dropped water on hillsides to protect homes from the 150-acre blaze.
A Christmas tree saved from the flames was in the front yard of a burned-out house and a large painting was propped against a Range Rover.
Flames burned a wine storage shed at media mogul Rupert Murdoch's 16-acre Moraga Vineyards estate and appeared to have damaged about 7 acres of vines, a spokeswoman said.
Bel-Air was the site of a catastrophic fire in 1961 that burned nearly 500 homes. Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor were among the celebrities who lost houses.
Across the wide I-405 freeway from the fire, the Getty Center art complex was closed to protect its collection from smoke damage. Many schools across Los Angeles were closed because of poor air quality and classes were canceled at 265 schools Thursday.
UCLA, at the edge of the Bel-Air evacuation zone, canceled afternoon classes and its evening basketball game. Students on campus wore dust and surgical masks.
By late afternoon, firefighters said they had controlled the fire's advance.
Production of HBO's "Westworld" and the CBS show "S.W.A.T." was suspended because of the danger to cast and crew from two nearby fires.
In Ventura County northwest of L.A., the biggest and most destructive of the wildfires grew beyond 100 square miles and had nearly reached the Pacific on Tuesday night after starting 30 miles inland a day earlier.
The fire destroyed at least 150 structures, but incident commander Todd Derum said he suspects hundreds of homes have been lost.
Along a stretch of a hilly subdivision with stunning ocean and mountain views above Ventura, about 65 homes were razed. Fewer than 30 houses still stood in the same area, where embers glowed and trees smoldered. Homes farther up the road fared much better, with only two burned and 42 intact.
While winds were calmer Wednesday, the fire remained active around Ventura, spreading along the coast to the west and up into the mountains around the community of Ojai and into the agricultural city of Santa Paula.
"We're basically in an urban firefight in Ventura, where if you can keep that house from burning, you might be able to slow the fire down," said Tim Chavez, a fire behavior specialist at the blaze. "But that's about it."
FUSD fifth-graders who have wanted to get into Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy without having to attend a different school as sixth-graders, then apply to FALA as seventh-graders, will get their chance next year.
The school announced last week that it will add a sixth-grade class to its grades 7-12 roster in the fall of 2018.
Dean of Academy Deidre Crawley said FALA has been working on adding a sixth-grade class to the school since Flagstaff Unified School District dropped sixth grade from its elementary schools and added it to grades 6-8 middle schools.
The result has been a "gap" year during which fifth-graders in FUSD have not been able to apply to enter FALA until the seventh grade. As a result, many FALA seventh-graders are attending their third school in three years.
The school is hoping to have a first sixth-grade class of at least 50 students. It will also be enrolling an entirely new class of seventh-graders, but for the last time as the new sixth graders move up. Current enrollment is about 320 students.
“We didn’t think it was fair to make students and parents wait a year and enroll in another school before they could apply to FALA,” Crawley said.
FALA has been a fixture in Flagstaff since it opened as one of the region’s first public charter schools in 1996. At first the school only taught high school students. In 2010, the school expanded to its current location and added seventh and eighth grades.
Crawley said demand for a sixth grade at FALA has been increasing over the last few years, with a number of parents and students asking when or if the school was going to add a sixth grade.
She added that the school already has most of the staff, faculty and physical space it needs for the new grade, so the cost to implement the new grade will be minimal.
FALA may have to hire one additional teacher and will have to rearrange some classes, she said. Administration has been talking with the middle school team of teachers and staff for several years about the addition of a sixth grade, so staff and faculty are prepared.
All sixth-graders will have access to the same beginning-level electives such as dance, music, theater, etc. that other grades do, Crawley said. However, the amount of elective classes that sixth-graders can take will be limited because the emphasis in FALA’s middle school grades is on core courses such as math, English, social studies, etc. Middle school students get more electives when they enter the eighth grade in preparation for their high school years.
Adding another middle school grade to the school will also be a boon to the high school students, Crawley said. The older students mentor the younger students, which creates a sense of camaraderie and community among the students. It also helps with the behavior of the older students because they know the younger students look up to them.
“We’re excited about it and think it will be a positive addition to the school,” she said.
More information on enrolling next year at FALA can be found on the school’s website at http://flagarts.com/.
Would expanding Highway 180 alleviate winter gridlock, or is the solution creating an alternate route? Would an extra lane on Milton Road help commuters move faster?
Those are the questions the Arizona Department of Transportation has set out to answer while creating the U.S. 180 and Milton Road master plans, which will include a 20-year vision for each of the ADOT-controlled roads.
ADOT Project Manager Dan Gabiou and Kevin Kugler, a project manager for Michael Baker International, a consultant hired for the planning process, presented the goals and projected timeline for the planning process to the Flagstaff City Council Tuesday evening. The two also looked for feedback from the councilmembers about their visions for the two corridors and what they would like to see in future plans.
ADOT has partnered with the Flagstaff Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transit Authority, the U.S. Forest Service, Northern Arizona University and other stakeholders to create the master plans.
The goals identified for both projects include determining the 20-year vision for each area. The Milton plan includes the section of Milton between Forest Meadows Street until it turns into Route 66 at Butler Avenue and continues to the intersection of Route 66 and Beaver Street. The U.S. 180 plan begins at the intersection of Humphreys Street and Route 66 and continues up to Crowley Pit.
At the meeting, some councilmembers expressed worry that once the plan is completed, solutions proposed may be cost prohibitive and not lead to any real changes.
“My major concern is we go through the planning processes and the documents sit on a shelf,” said Mayor Coral Evans.
Evans said the community is frustrated with Milton’s problems, like heavy traffic and long wait times at lights. However, she said she would not want to use the city’s transportation tax revenue to fund a fix on an ADOT-controlled road unless there were a “true partnership.”
The city created a commission to discuss creating one or more questions on the 2018 ballot to extend or possibly increase the city’s sales tax, which pays for transportation improvements.
“We as a city have major transportation needs that are not tied to a state highway,” Evans said.
One of the questions posed to the council was whether the city wanted to preserve or enhance the character of the Milton corridor.
“I’m not quite sure Milton has a character,” Evans said. “If we could create a sense of place or a vibe that ‘you have arrived in this really cool town,’ that would help.”
Councilman Scott Overton said the financial realities of lane capacity and the structure of Milton Road are “probably pretty unlikely” due to the cost associated with widening the street, like acquiring property along the road. Overton suggested alternatives to simply widening the road, like adding a median to prohibit left turns in sections or lanes dedicated for only transit.
Vice Mayor Jamie Whelan said she would like to see the process include data that has been compiled from other studies about the corridors. There has been a lot of data and study dedicated to both Milton and U.S. 180, Whelan said, and the new master plan should also consolidate data generated from previous studies.
Councilwoman Eva Putzova said she would like the planning team to consider solutions that do not involve engineering, and focus on social and behavioral changes. Most of the congestion on Milton is during regular commuting times, and a change in behavior, like alternate modes of transportation or a social change, like staggered hours for starting and ending the work day, could help alleviate the gridlock, she said.
Gabiou and Kugler will present to the Coconino County Board of Supervisors at the meeting December 12. The two are planning to host a public open house in either January or February 2018.
In addition to state efforts to find solutions for Highway 180 and Milton Road traffic, the Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority, or NAIPTA, is creating its own plan for the corridor.
The transit agency’s planning focuses on transit services, alternate routes and highway access options to improve wintertime travel along the highway just north of Flagstaff, said Kate Morley, a planner with NAIPTA. The agency’s planning effort is funded through a $220,000 grant from the Arizona Department of Transportation.
“(Highway) 180 is a chronic community issue and we believe transit and NAIPTA can be a part of the solution,” said Jeff Meilbeck, CEO and general manager of NAIPTA.
NAIPTA is starting by collecting traffic data for the 180 corridor, Morley said. One source of that data is aggregated cell phone records that don’t show people’s personal information but indicate where they are coming from and where around Flagstaff they go, whether that be Snowbowl, somewhere along Highway 180 or the snowplay area at Fort Tuthill, Morley said. NAIPTA will purchase historic cell phone data for several high-traffic winter weekends in the past to analyze travel trends among visitors, Morley said.
Doing so can allow the agency to evaluate the potential effectiveness of actions like rerouting visitors to the Grand Canyon through Williams instead of through the 180 corridor, she said.
Traffic counts collected by ADOT will help verify and supplement the cell phone data, she said.
Historic traffic patterns will also be used to inform recommendations for increased bus service, park and rides and rider amenities along Highway 180, Morley said. Knowing high-traffic times during the winter will help NAIPTA suggest certain bus schedules and frequencies that could best serve snowplay-seekers, she said.
Another prong of NAIPTA’s plan involves getting legal advice on the ability for state or local authorities to close or limit access to Highway 180. Charging fees for access to the highway or closing the road on high-use days while allowing only residents and buses to get through was one of the ideas discussed at a public meeting on snowplay congestion in March hosted by Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott. After that meeting, Babbott organized a citizens task force focused on winter recreation issues that has continued to meet and discuss different solutions to the snowplay congestion problem. An agency task force meets as well to consider the same issues.
NAIPTA’s goal is to produce answers and solid analysis for proposals and questions that have been floated by those groups and others in the past.
“The point is to know crystal clear, once and for all, what are our options, if any, and what do we want to do about it,” Meilbeck said.
Another idea that came up at past snowplay meetings was that of alternate routes that people could use to exit the Highway 180 corridor without having to wind through Flagstaff.
As part of its plan, NAIPTA is analyzing five specific routes, four of which would use Forest Service and county roads to connect Highway 180 to Interstate-40 or Highway 89. The other would direct people to head north on Highway 180, south on Highway 64 and east on I-40.
For each route, NAIPTA will look at costs to upgrade and improve the roads to a standard that would support wintertime traffic, long-term maintenance requirements, approximate drive times and distances, expected use, major implementation steps, and general support or opposition from the public.
Several of the routes would need at least some improvements and one route would require the construction of a road south of Baderville, Morley said.
Marketing and messaging that aligns with ADOT will be another component of the plan, she added.
NAIPTA will identify a range of solutions by this spring, then put those out for public input before coming up with a narrower list of recommendations, she said. For those, the agency will create an implementation plan that includes details like how each recommendation could be funded and who would be responsible for implementing it, Morley said.
The goal is to finish that implementation plan by next October so some of the solutions can be rolled out during next year’s winter season, Morley said. A series of surveys would then assess how people feel progress is being made in the corridor.