Getty Fire Was 'Act Of God' Caused By Tree Branch Hitting Power Lines, Authorities Say

Hand crews work a wildfire-damaged hillside as the Getty Fire burns in Mandeville Canyon, Oct. 28, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Getty Images)

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The Getty Fire was an accident caused by a broken tree branch blown by strong winds into a power line, authorities said Tuesday.

The branch broke off from a eucalyptus tree near the 1900 block of North Sepulveda Boulevard. The wind carried the branch into a utility line 30 feet away, causing an arc that sent sparks falling onto the ground, igniting the fire, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Mayor Eric Garcetti called it an "act of god."

Power had not been shut off in the area, but utility crews had completed brush clearance in the area around the power poles as recently as July, said LADWP general manager Marty Adams, who added that LADWP's wires are spaced at three times the recommended standards.

"In this unfortunate situation, it could have been a tree branch, could have been a palm frond from across the freeway, a Mylar balloon — any of those things entering into the area are things that we cannot control and so that makes the challenge of how to deliver reliable power [and] at the same time be vigilant on a windy day such as we had these last few days," Adams said.

Adams said the regular patrol of LADWP systems is "one of the reasons that we do not proactively believe we need to have shut-offs of power in Los Angeles."

The equipment itself was undamaged and continued to carry power to nearby homes without interruption, Adams said.

Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said it was the fastest he could recall his department ever declaring the cause of a fire, but he said the conclusion was based on eyewitness accounts, photo and video footage.

Garcetti warned residents to be prepared for even more dangerous conditions Tuesday night.

The National Weather Service has called it an extreme wind event that could result in wind gusts of 70 mph to 80 mph.

Garcetti said the city refers to a brush index, which combines humidity, heat and the strength of the winds to put a value on the risk. The highest index the city has seen, Garcetti said, was 266 just before the Thomas Fire. But Tuesday night, the index is 301.

"So for folks who are right now anxious to get home, please listen to that number very carefully," Garcetti said. "That is something which we have never seen since we've been putting this brush index together."

The weather had been working in firefighters' favor Tuesday as they built containment lines around the Getty Fire, which broke out early Monday near the Getty Museum. But authorities are preparing for the worst as an extreme Santa Ana wind event forecasted tonight brings a high fire risk back to Southern California.

The Getty Fire, which is burning in the Mandeville Canyon area west of the 405 Freeway, grew to 656 acres overnight, Los Angeles Fire Department officials said Tuesday morning. The wind-driven blaze prompted the evacuation of thousands of homes and other structures, and destroyed or damaged at least 14.

While some of the evacuation orders from the previous night have been lifted, many residents are still unable to return to their homes.

Fire officials said eight structures have been destroyed and six have been damaged. For much of Monday, the fire closed all southbound lanes of the 405 Freeway from the 101 Freeway to Sunset Boulevard, though the lanes were reopened that evening. On- and off-ramps through the Sepulveda Pass remain closed.

On the first day, emergency responders undertook at least 18 rescue missions, all/mostly of elderly residents.

Garcetti signed an emergency declaration to bring more aide to the area.

THE BASICS

  • Acres burned: 656
  • Containment: 15%
  • Injuries: None reported
  • Structures damaged or destroyed: at least 12 structures destroyed, five damaged
  • Structures threatened: 7,091 homes
  • Resources deployed: About 1,165 personnel across multiple agencies

At the incident command post at Jackie Robinson Stadium Tuesday morning, firefighters posted a list of four control objectives:

  • Keep the fire west of the 405 Freeway
  • Keep the fire south of Mullholland Highway
  • Keep the fire east of Mandeville Canyon
  • Keep the fire north of Sunset Boulevard

That may look simple, but firefighters will be hard at work building containment lines in steep terrain while also protecting structures in the burn zone.

"This fire will not be down and done for at least a couple weeks," Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a 8 a.m. press briefing.

California Governor Gavin Newsom is in L.A. today and surveyed some of the damage from the Getty Fire with Mayor Garcetti. Over the weekend, Newsom declared a statewide emergency as multiple high-intesity fires — including the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County and the Tick Fire in the Santa Clarita area — destroyed homes and displaced tens of thousands of Californians.

The state has also secured a federal Fire Management Assistance Grant, which will "help ensure the availability of resources to fight the Getty Fire," according to the governor's office.


RELATED: California Fires Are Getting Worse. What's Going On?


WEATHER CONDITIONS

A firefighter works to clear a house destroyed by a wildfire called the Getty Fire, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Christian Monterrosa/AP)

An "extreme red flag warning" has been issued for Tuesday night, starting at 11 p.m. and running through 6 p.m. Thursday. Wind gusts of 30-50 mph are expected Tuesday evening, but peak gusts could hit 80 mph in regional mountains.

Rich Thomson, an incident metereologist with the weather service who has been assigned to assist fire officials on the Getty Fire, said it was the first time he remembered his office describing a red flag warning as "extreme."

Forecasters have warned that the combination of gusty Santa Winds, low humidity and dry fuels could lead to rapid fire growth. In this case, those three variables add up to potentially the strongest red flag event since October 2007, when the Witch Fire ravaged San Diego, destroying more than 1,600 structures, according to Thomson.

"So that's why we're using that really strong wording, to really get the word out to people that this could be a very potentially significant event," Thomson said. "More so than your run-of-the-mill Santa Ana, which can cause fires and issues, but just all the parameters come together for this particular event just makes the potential there for extreme fire behavior and extreme fire growth to occur."

All of this of course also means L.A.'s red flag parking restrictions will be put in place at 8 p.m.

On Tuesday, Terrazas once again urged residents to sign up for the city's emergency alerts.

"It's a dangerous season right now," LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas said Monday. "Santa Ana winds pick up in September and last through April. We have not had any significant rainfall for a period of time. So that's why we're very, very concerned about these weather conditions."

The state's Office of Emergency Services is deploying Fire and Rescue personnel in Southern California in anticipation for the extreme fire risk overnight.

The County of L.A. sent out via Twitter a few tips for preparing for extreme wind:

EVACUATIONS

Mandatory evacuations were issued in the area with the following borders:

  • Northern border: Mulholland Drive
  • Western border: Temescal Canyon Road
  • Southern border: Sunset Boulevard
  • Eastern border: 405 Freeway

Voluntary evacuations were issued in the area with the following borders:

  • The Mountaingate community turned from a mandatory evacuation area to a voluntary evacuation area at 5 p.m. Monday
  • Northern border: Mulholland Drive
  • Western border: Topanga Canyon
  • Southern border: Sunset Boulevard
  • Eastern border: Temescal Canyon Road

EVACUATION CENTERS

The Red Cross has opened an evacuation center at the Westwood Recreation Center for residents impacted by the Getty Fire burning in the Sepulveda Pass. (Chava Sanchez/LAist )

For people:

  • Westwood Recreation Center, 1350 South Supulveda (transitioned to overnight shelter Monday night)
  • Palisades Recreation Center, 851 Alma Real Dr. (transitioned to overnight shelter Monday night)
  • Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks Recreation Center, 14201 Huston St. (CLOSED)
  • Stoner Recreation Center, 1835 Stoner Ave. (CLOSED)
  • Cheviot Hills Recreation Center, 2551 Motor Ave. (CLOSED)

For animals:

  • West Valley Animal Shelter, 20655 Plummer St.
  • West L.A. Animal Shelter, 11361 W Pico Bl.
  • Large Animals: Hanson Dam Recreation Center, 11770 Foothill Blvd.

Another potentially life-threatening impact from the fire emerged Tuesday: as the city of L.A.'s animal shelters take in displaced pets, there is now less room for the homeless pets already there.

The city's animal services department said Tuesday that some local shelters are in urgent need of people to foster and adopt animals.

More information is available on the L.A. Animal Services website.

ROAD CLOSURES

The southbound 405 through the Sepulveda Pass was reopened at 6 p.m. Monday, but other closures remain in effect, according to the California Highway Patrol:

  • All on- and offramps on both the northbound and southbound 405 Freeway between the 101 Freeway and Sunset Boulevard
  • Westbound Sunset Boulevard from the 405 to Temescal Canyon
  • Northbound Sepulveda Boulevard from Moraga Drive to Skirball Center Drive
  • Southbound Sepulveda from Skirball to Sunset
  • Planned construction on PCH in Malibu, L.A. and Santa Monica has been canceled for the remainder of the week

SCHOOL CLOSURES

  • The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District anounced all its schools have reopened Tuesday
  • Mount St. Mary's University remains closed Tuesday
  • The following LAUSD schools also remain closed Tuesday:
    • University High School
    • Emerson Middle School
    • Revere Middle School
    • Brentwood Elementary
    • Brockton Elementary
    • Canyon Elementary
    • Community Magnet
    • Fairburn Elementary
    • Kenter Canyon Elementary
    • Marquez Elementary
    • Palisades Elementary
    • Roscomare Elementary
    • Nora Sterry Elementary
    • Topanga Elementary
    • Warner Elementary
    • Westwood Elementary
  • LAUSD charter schools:
    • Citizens of the World Charter (Gateway and Ivy Place campuses)
    • Magnolia Science Academy, #4 and #6
    • Palisades Charter High School
A firefighters tries to hose down flames as a home burns in the Getty fire area along Tigertail Road Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

AIR QUALITY

The South Coast Air Quality Management District extended a smoke advisory through Tuesday morning.

Winds are expected to push smoke to the north Tuesday, impacting the San Fernando Valley, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Burbank.

Check AQMD's website for a live map of air quality conditions.

BACKGROUND

The Getty Fire broke out just after 1:30 a.m. Monday morning about 50 acres west of the 405 Freeway near Sunset Boulevard, not far from the Getty Center. Within hours, it had spread to hundreds of acres and prompted thousands of mandatory evacuations.

HOW WE'RE REPORTING ON THIS

Reporter Sharon McNary is providing coverage from the command center. Digital producer Ryan Fonseca is keeping this story updated. Additional research and reporting is being done by KPCC newscast producers.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

For the latest information straight from local emergency officials, check the following websites and social media accounts:

FIRE RESOURCES

YOUR QUESTIONS