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Sylmar fire in Los Angeles could become a "siege"

NOTE: This post is about the Sylmar fire in October of 2008. For news on the Sylmar fire of November 15, 2008, click here.

Note: 10:41 a.m. update regarding the Martin Mars amphibious craft capable of dropping thermogel.

With a wall of fire hundreds of feet long in places, wind-driven smoke billowing over the Hollywood Hills and blanketing most of the San Fernando Valley, and the busy 210 Freeway closed and snarling traffic for miles, fire officials warned that the city could face a "siege" if winds don't let up.

An unknown number of Sylmar residents, said to be in the thousands, have been evacuated, with forced evacuations beginning in the black of night Monday morning after large hot spots tended by 19 engine companies from Los Angeles County Fire and Los Angeles City Fire departments got whipped into a massive blaze that burned buildings and trucks at the Lopez Canyon landfill and may have destroyed much of a nearby mobile home.

"Even if we'd had an army, it wouldn't have made a difference," said one city fire official, as county and city fire officials called in water drops by Super Scoopers and helicopters to put down fast-moving flames that the ground crews, streaming in from all over Southern California, could not contain.

As reported by the Weekly almost a year ago in its cover story "Air Inferiority: Is “Run!” the new strategy against firestorms on California's urban fringe?" during the horrific 2007 California fires that destroyed entire communities, the State of California and local counties could not access the air tankers and air-dropping helicopters they needed because of red tape and a shortage of such vessels.

The red tape and air support shortages during the California fire disaster of 2007 set off intense political recriminations as community after community in Orange County and San Diego County got consumed by flames and ground crews could not access hilly terrain where fast-moving fires could be fought only from the air.

Sylmar, a 1950's-era suburb of Los Angeles in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, is longtime horse country, filled with remote trails, grassy hills, dry ravines and low scrub that burns easily, and the entire Valley is especially dry after a very long spell without appreciable rain in Southern California.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, though looking worried as he spoke on live TV, assured the public that the huge Olive View Medical Center, a county hospital that treats many indigent, illegal immigrants and other poor populations, was not at risk. But at the same time, a major contingent of fire engines and fire crews were placed next to the hospital as line of defense in case the Santa Ana winds take a surprise turn in that direction.

Tony Morris, of Wildfire Research Network, www.wildfireresearch.org, says that as of 10:30 a.m. the fire is only 5% contained and "It's a very real challenge to control a fire like this."

Morris has heard today from Wayne Coulson in Canada, owner of the Martin Mars, a huge amphibious craft recently shown to be capable of dropping thermogel on structures, rather than less effective water. The craft is sitting at Lake Elsinore, a 20-minute flight from Los Angeles. "Mr. Coulson can scoop out of Castaic Lake and is trying to get in touch with authorities, right now, to discuss the possible use of his plane in this fire."