Fire flares on Fiji, burning two acres before LAFD containment

LAFD officers standing in the driveway of the Wallis Annenberg President’s House receive updates from firefighters in the field, Dec. 14, 2017. Johnny Franks.

The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) responded to and contained a two-acre brush fire on Mount Fiji Thursday, Dec. 14. The department issued its first report on the incident at 9:45 p.m. According to the latest update that LAFD Public Service and Information Officer Margaret Stewart posted on the LAFD website, 75 firefighters extinguished the fire by 11:06 p.m., a knockdown time of one hour and 21 minutes. In her most recent update, Stewart wrote that there were no injuries and that the fire’s cause is currently unknown.

“As of right now, we’ve called a knockdown. The fire is completely out. We actually did this united, and that means that L.A. County and L.A. fire worked together,” LAFD Battalion Chief Jaime Lesinski said.

According to an LAFD update at 10:03 p.m., LAFD assigned 91 firefighters to the fire. Four Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) camp crews and one LACoFD helicopter assisted. According to Lesinski, who is chief of Battallion Two in the LAFD Central Bureau and was incident as well as operations commander for this fire, the Los Angeles Police Department was the first to alert LAFD. He said that LACoFD camp crews dug a fire line around the blaze with shovels while LAFD provided the fire engines and water. Firefighters accessed the fire via paths above the Greek Bowl and used the fire hydrant outside Treehouse on AGC Road.

In their initial update at 9:45 p.m., LAFD estimated that the fire spanned three to four acres. The department updated this estimate to five acres by 10:03 p.m. before settling on the two-acre figure at the time of containment.

Lesinski said that the current fire danger is a result of low relative humidity and not the heat, which is a common misconception. According to Lesinski, for the past two weeks, relative humidity in the area has been approximately 1 percent. LAFD considers relative humidity under 20 percent critical. Lesinski said that the current period is the dryest on record, which led to the large LAFD response.

“So this is why you have such a large commitment here, because even though it was a grass or medium-light brush fire, we can’t let it get bigger, because everything’s ready to explode because it’s so dry,” Lesinski said. “And then the other one was [because] it’s a campus. On a campus, we have a huge evacuation issue.”

Lesinski said that a brush patrol company would remain on scene for approximately two hours to ensure the fire did not flair up again. After the brush patrol’s determination, LAFD would further downgrade the scale of their operations and leave campus.

Jim Tranquada, director of communications and community relations, sent an emergency update on the fire to the Occidental Community at 10:28 p.m., warning students to stay away from the area to avoid disturbing the firefighters. Tranquada updated the community at 11:02 p.m., confirming that LAFD had contained the fire but advising students to continue avoiding the area.

According to Lesinski, he and his team have been on recall for a week, unable to go home.

Senior members of the administration convened an emergency meeting at approximately 10:30 p.m. behind the LAFD command post in the driveway of the Wallis Annenberg President’s House. President Jonathan Veitch, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Amos Himmelstein, Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Affairs Rob Flot, Associate Vice President of Marketing and Communications Marty Sharkey, Director of Facilities Thomas Polansky and Associate Vice President for Information Technology Services and Chief Technology Officer James Uhrich were in attendance. Before learning of the fire’s containment, the administrators discussed the possibility of evacuating students from campus.

LAFD Central Bureau Commander Phillip Fligiel addressed the senior leadership at 11:12 p.m., saying the firefighters had the area contained with no remaining active flame. Following Fligiel’s statement, the senior administrators gradually dispersed.

Uhrich, a member of the Emergency Preparedness Committee, said that the administration has run tabletop, simulated response exercises in the past. According to him, the protocol is to assess the situation, determine who on the senior staff needs to be involved and respond to the needs of the emergency responders.

“If we have to evacuate, we evacuate. If we have to do something else, we do that, and we get the right people involved,” Uhrich said.

According to Himmelstein, the Facilities Department monitors and maintains the area behind Occidental College to meet fire department regulations. Polansky said this involves clearing brush at a certain distance from each college building on the hill every year.

Looking towards the future, Himmelstein said the college is focused on prevention.

“I think we have to look at the area, make sure that, for one thing, maybe try to find out how it started and see if there’s anything we can do to prevent anything like this from happening again,” Himmelstein said.

Matthew Reagan contributed to the reporting of this article.

Update: This article was updated Dec. 15 to correct the date and time of the fire as well as Sharkey’s title.