MONROVIA — A brush fire in the hillsides of northern Monrovia quickly grew to 175 acres and prompted mandatory evacuations of about 200 homes Saturday, authorities said.
The fire, which ignited shortly after 11 a.m. along the 300 block of Madison Ave., was 50 percent contained by nightfall, Monrovia Fire Department and city officials said.
As the fire continued to grow Friday afternoon, mandatory evacuations were ordered along the fires eastern flank in an area above Foothill Boulevard in the vicinity of Myrtle Avenue.
The fire was separated by one ridge from neighborhoods, though no homes were “directly threatened” by the wildfire Saturday afternoon, Monrovia Fire Department and city officials said.
“The fire has jumped a critical containment line and continues to burn,” Monrovia Fire Chief Chris Donovan said Saturday afternoon. The blaze was working its way east through heavy brush that has not burned in more than 55 years.
But by nightfall, firefighters appeared to be getting the upper hand. The majority of evacuations — for all but four streets — were lifted at 9 p.m.
Only Highland Place, Heather Heights Court, Briarcliff Road and Alta Vista Avenue remained under mandatory evacuations orders Saturday night, due to concerns over possible overnight winds.
“There is no imminent danger,” Donovan said. “Residents are asked to be patient, but no time has been established at this point to lift the evacuation.”
An evacuation center was set up for displaced residents at the Monrovia Community Center, 119 W. Palm Ave, and the Red Cross was summoned to offer assistance, fire and city officials said. Few residents made use of the shelter Saturday afternoon.
Sixty-five fire engines, five water dropping helicopters, two water dropping fixed-wing airplanes, six hand crews and two bulldozers were assigned to the fire in the afternoon, Donovan said.
Firefighters switched tactics after sunset, relying less on water drops on more on hand crews, officials said. Twenty engines and six hand crews continued working overnight.
“The concern for tonight is downwind draft, which is typical for foothill areas,” Donovan said. “I am comfortable with the situation and the lack of wind.”
Officials used Monrovia High School as a base for them to operate out of, Monrovia spokeswoman Jennifer McLain said.
The fire was believed to have been sparked by power tools from gardening work, Donovan said.
Saturday’s hot weather took a toll on the firefighting effort, and one firefighter was treated for heat-related injuries, officials said.
But the weather was also cooperating in some respects, Donovan said.
Humidity levels were reasonable and an expected increase in wind in the afternoon was less significant than anticipated.
“It’s still a primarily fuel and topography driven fire,” the chief added.
Donovan commended the firefighters.
“The firefighters are doing hard work up there, and they’re doing an excellent job of protecting homes,” he said.
Animal control officials were called to the scene of the fire about 4 p.m. after firefighters spotted a bear, McLain said. The animal control officers shooed the bear away.
The first firefighters who responded to a 9-1-1 call reporting the fire encountered “light smoke with fire burning uphill,” Donovan said.
Residents said firefighters arrived and began attacking the fire very quickly, but it continued to quickly spread through the heavy fuels as it worked its way toward the east.
Within a matter of hours, what began as a narrow pillar of smoke rising from the foothills spread into a haze that obscured the San Gabriel Mountains.
The fire burned within 60 feet or so of Fred Bowden’s Crescent Drive home. Though he said he was concerned, he never thought his house was in serious danger.
He said he took his pets to his office and was ready to make a hasty retreat if he had to, but was confident firefighters had the situation under control.
“Monrovia Fire did a good job. I was impressed,” Bowden said.
At the outset of the fire “the flames were about 50 feet high,” said Bowden’s brother-in-law Paul Pollack. “They jumped on this thing fast. They did a hell of a job.”
A group of residents living along Crescent Drive, near the fire’s origin, decided to make the best of the situation.
They set up lawn chairs and gathered food in the front yard of Terry Blank, who had a closer-than-comfortable front-row view of the fire.
“I’m pretty calm,” she said. “I don’t panic.”
Neighbors brought over some food and drink, and Blank whipped up some snacks as the neighbors gathered for a sort of fire-watching block party.
But it wasn’t all fun, said Blank’s daughter, as the fire still seemed to pose a potential threat to some homes farther to the east.
“We have longtime friend’s up there,” she said.
Evacuees needing a place for their pets were invited to drop them off at the Pasadena Humane Society, which is at 361 S. Raymond Ave. in Pasadena and can be reached at 626-792-7151, or the Wonder Ranch Dog Ranch in Monrovia, which is at 220 Taylor Street and can be reached at 626-205-2501. The Wonder Dog Ranch has offered to board both dogs and cats.
PHOTO by Sarah Reingewirtz