Fire threatens L.A. apt.

by Beacon Staff • April 11, 2007

The blaze erupted in southern California's Cahuenga Pass in Griffith Park and edged dangerously close to the Oakwood Gardens apartment complex that is home to more than 100 Emerson students, forcing some out of their building until the inferno was controlled.,Alight with the passion of aspiring entertainers, Emerson's Los Angeles program received a big spark late last month when an apartment complex housing students was threatened by a brush fire.

The blaze erupted in southern California's Cahuenga Pass in Griffith Park and edged dangerously close to the Oakwood Gardens apartment complex that is home to more than 100 Emerson students, forcing some out of their building until the inferno was controlled.

Breaking out at around 1 p.m. on March 30, the fire started when two visiting teenagers set off fireworks in the area behind the complex of almost 30 buildings. The blaze endangered the landmark Hollywood sign and burned steadily up the hill late into the afternoon, scorching approximately 200 acres, fire reports indicated.

Senior writing, literature and publishing major Jonathan Hann, who was in his Oakwood apartment the day of the fire, said he and friend Pablo Velez, another Emerson student, watched the firefighters battle the blaze from atop a parking garage.

"It was a really surreal sight," Hann wrote in an e-mail to The Beacon. "Because everything is so dry in L.A. ... one change of wind can cause the fire to spread numerous places and rapidly."

Hann wrote that during the fire, he found it easy to differentiate East- and West-coasters. Those evacuating family and belongings as fast as possible were natives, while "the East-coast people were standing around with their hands in their pockets like it wasn't a big deal," he wrote.

Jim Lane, executive director of the L.A. Center, said although the fire came close to the apartments, most of the students were working at various internships during the day and weren't home.

"Mercifully, the fire burned east," he said. "We had hundreds of firefighters from Burbank, Glendale and L.A. [at Oakwood] in short order."

He said the apartment complex was used as a meeting area for the fire departments.

Just two days prior to the brush fire, Lane said he spoke to Dean of Students Ronald Ludman about the fire season ahead and the dry weather the region was experiencing.

"We have [fires] every season, and this winter was a particularly dry one," Lane said.

The National Weather Service (NWS) recorded less than three inches of rain in the LA area since July 2006, considerably less than the nearly 15 inches of average rainfall experienced in the past over the same time period.

Bonnie Bartling, a hydro-meteorological technician at the NWS, said everything was unusually dry when the blaze started.

"Obviously, that's going to play a major role in the fuel conditions," Bartling said. "We're ramping up fire season early this year. It means we have a designated fire-weather person on staff every day, as opposed to just on weekends."

Two buildings in the apartment complex, together housing 16 Emerson students, were under the most intense watch by firefighters.

Lane said his office sent out an e-mail and had his staff call all students directly to notify them access to Oakwood was restricted and they should park cars in the Emerson Center lot just a mile away.

"The Fire Department used Oakwood as a staging ground to fight the fire," he said. "Trucks lined the streets."

More than 400 firefighters from 71 companies responded. After battling to control the blaze for more than five hours, additional crews worked into the night to safeguard against flare-ups, a Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) press release said.

The LAFD categorized the incident as a major emergency, the highest priority classification for a fire. During the dry season the LAFD responds to about a dozen brush fires a day, but almost none as large as the one last month, according to LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey.

"It was a sizable fire, but we were astounded by the national attention it garnered," Humphrey said. "It was probably because of its proximity to the Hollywood sign."

The two teens that set the fire, came forward that same day, and have since been released into the custody of their parents. They await possible prosecution under charges of reckless setting of a fire.

Senior film major Leandro Caires, who was at work at Warner Bros. Studios when the fire broke out, said his roommate contacted him first.

"I looked out my window at work and could see the fire," Caires said in a telephone interview. A resident of building P, one of the closest of the Oakwood structures to the fire, Caires said no one could enter or leave the complex for hours.

"We were really lucky. The wind was against the building, so the fire didn't come the other way," he said. "It was a little bit of a shock."