The suburban hills north-west of Los Angeles were ablaze yesterday, as the first hot desert winds of the autumn season ignited brush and chaparral and threatened thousands of homes and businesses as well as a highly toxic rocket-building factory.
The worst of the damage was at the western end of the San Fernando Valley, where gated communities and suburban houses nestle beneath the Santa Susana mountains. The notorious Santa Ana winds, which bring temperatures so hot it can feel as though someone has left a radiator on full blast, threatened at one point to push the flames across the Ventura freeway and out towards the beachside mansions of Malibu.
But firefighters managed to build breaks and prevent the blazes from spreading out of control. By last night, the fires were said to be about 20 per cent contained, and cooler temperatures were likely to make the task of extinguishing them easier.
The Santa Anas, said to affect the mood of Los Angeles so drastically they often trigger a rise in the murder rate, have posed a greater fire risk in recent years because of expanding suburban development in exposed hillsides. Several towns in the San Bernardino mountains, east of Los Angeles, were devastated in fires two years ago. One of the newer developments in the San Fernando Valley is named Smokey Ridge, for good reason.
Most worrying, perhaps, was the proximity of the flames to the Rocketdyne factory, which tests rocket engines and contains numerous toxic chemicals and even radioactive material. But firefighters said the plant and buildings were so far unaffected.