Powerhouse Fire: Firefighters gain upper hand on wildfire northwest of Los Angeles

A scorched car is left in the driveway of a Lake Hughes home.
A scorched car is left in the driveway of a Lake Hughes home.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Stats on the Powerhouse wildfire in northwestern Los Angeles County:

On Monday afternoon, Gregg Johnson surveyed the damage along with the nearly 3,000 others allowed to return to their homes in the rural communities threatened by the massive Southern California Powerhouse wildfire. All that was left of his two-story home with a stunning panoramic view was black twisted metal and ashes.

Johnson, 59, left his home Saturday with his wife and 12-year-old son after watching the fire race down around Lake Hughes below them and then surround their mountaintop home.

“At that point, you know, the deal was done,” Johnson said. “Of course I was holding out hope … maybe the people who told me my house had burned down were wrong.”

The remnants of the fire’s destructive path left charred hillsides speckled with white ash over 50 square miles in northern Los Angeles County as residents returned to 700 homes they had fled in the rural communities 45 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

The Powerhouse Fire was 60 percent contained Tuesday morning as firefighters finally gained the upper hand Monday on a fire that had doubled in size over the weekend and spread rapidly through more than 32,000 acres of old, dry chaparral with the help of gusty winds and triple-digit temperatures.

Cooler, moist air on Monday helped thousands of firefighters battling flames that moved out into easier, sparser terrain — from the rugged mountains of the Angeles National forest onto the floor of the high desert Antelope Valley.

Full containment was expected in a week as terrain, and officials expressed guarded optimism Monday.

“What a difference a day makes,” said LA County Deputy Chief David Richardson.

Authorities expect cooler weather Tuesday, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Paul Gibbs said. They still look to face some wind, but not quite as strong as the past couple days.

"We don't expect the fire to grow very much today," Gibbs said. "We expect some interior islands to burn out — stuff that didn't burn when the fire passed through there the first time." 

Firefighters are still facing fire in remote areas.

"There's still the really remote and steep areas with heavy and older brush that we've been dealing with — that doesn't change," Gibbs said. "What changes over time is the weather and the fire behavior."

Gibbs said there shouldn't be as much smoke.

"I don't think we'll see the large columns that we saw, especially a couple days ago, just because there's not as many acres available that it takes to produce that type of a smoke column, but the public can still expect to see smoke coming off the fire, especially as those interior islands — some of which are still fairly large — continue to burn out."

“We’re supposed to have a good marine layer into the morning, we’re hoping for it not too heat up too early,” said a U.S. Forest Service spokesman Ed Gililland.

The fire was most active Monday in the northwest, pushing through a brushy area and had not burned since the 1930s, said Ronald Ashdale, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. On Monday winds had swept across a dozer line set up by firefighters, pushing the area of containment out by another 5 acres.

But with only widely scattered homes in the area, firefighters were able to work more on attacking flames than on structure protection. At least six houses have been destroyed by the fire, and nine more damaged.

The fire continued to threaten about 275 homes Monday evening, down from 1,000 earlier in the day.

Monique Hernandez, 37, saw the fire jump Lake Hughes and decided to flee the mountaintop home she and her parents rented in March.

The family put their dog, photos and clothes into a van and sped down a mile-long dirt road. An hour later, they learned their home had burned.

“I saw it on the news,” Hernandez said at the Red Cross shelter in Palmdale with her 3-year-old daughter, Angelique. “It was all gone. It was down to ashes.”

About 2,100 firefighters took on the flames, aided by water-dropping helicopters and airplanes unleashing loads of retardant across the flanks of the fire.

The cause of the fire was under investigation. Three firefighters had minor injuries, but no one else was hurt.

Smoke from the Southern California wildfire and from Nevada fires hung over Las Vegas, where Clark County officials advised Monday that it could bother sensitive people such as those with respiratory conditions.

In the West, two major wildfires were burning in northern New Mexico, and weather conditions were not expected to be helpful to firefighters.

The Tres Lagunas fire north of Pecos in Santa Fe National Forest had grown to 12 1/2 square miles, causing smoke to spread across much of the region.

It previously prompted the evacuation of about 140 houses, mostly summer residences, but no structures had been burned.

Drier and windier weather was moving in, said interagency fire management team spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano. “It’s going to be challenging,” she said.

Firefighters were working to protect a group of homes in Holy Ghost Canyon and prevent the fire from spreading east, where it could endanger a river watershed that supplies Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, the Thompson Ridge fire near Jemez Springs remained at nearly 3 square miles. Forty to 50 houses were evacuated late last week.

A light gray haze blanketed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east of Santa Fe and a thicker haze nearly obscured a view from Santa Fe of the Jemez Mountains to the west.

In Evergreen, Colo., about 30 miles west of Denver, sheriff’s officials made about 9,900 automated calls telling people to evacuate as gusts carried sparks a half mile from where a fire burned an estimated 25 to 35 acres. The exact number of evacuees wasn’t known because some homes receive calls to multiple numbers.

The fire was settling down Monday night and authorities said some evacuees will be able to return home.

In Alaska, wetter, cooler weather was giving crews a reprieve at many of the 40 active wildfires in the state. There have been 150 fires in Alaska this year, with more than 66 square miles burned.

This story has been updated.