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Santa Monica Warned to Stay Indoors as Blanket of Smoke from Wind-Whipped Sylmar Fire Arrives


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

December 6, 2017 -- Tuesday was far from another day of fun in the sun in Santa Monica, as an eerie blanket of grey smoke and particulates from a wind-frenzied blaze near Sylmar crept in about dawn, bewildering a populace warned to stay indoors until further notice.

“Everything is covered in ash,” said John Petz, a writer and longtime resident, as he stepped into his patio sometime around dusk.

The entire day had been “weird,” he said.

It was surreal enough in a seaside city famous for its cheery sun-lit environs to feel almost “apocalyptic.”

“You expect zombies to be wandering around the streets,” he said.

NASA image of Sylmar fires
Image of Sylmar fires from space (Photo courtesy of NASA)

The real culprit was the racing Creek wildfire near Sylmar, which prompted the Los Angeles Department of Public Health to issue a smoke advisory of unhealthful air quality, particularly in the San Fernando Valley and coastal areas, including Santa Monica and Malibu.

The Creek wildfire was just one of a multitude of fires that broke out between early Monday and Tuesday morning, centered in in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. They roared on as night fell Tuesday, driven by the dry Santa Ana winds.

The mammoth Thomas fire in Ventura County started Monday evening and mushroomed overnight. The Creek fire started at 4 a.m. Tuesday, subsequently jumped the packed 210 Freeway, closing a stretch of it, and had destroyed 30 homes, injured two firefighters and consumed 11,000 acres by nightfall, authorities said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a state of emergency for the city and said as many as 150,000 people were evacuated from the area as Santa Ana winds propelled flames down into the San Fernando Valley.

The Rye fire erupted six hours later in Santa Clarita.

The huge of the thick smoke that resulted could be seen streaming in widening plumes inland toward the Pacific, captured by NASA Tuesday afternoon on its Terra satellite, it announced.

As it became apparent Santa Monica was in path of one of those plumes, the City and its fire department tweeted alerts explaining the smell was due to fires outside the city, and to keep the 911 system clear for emergencies.

Meanwhile, the 11,000-student Santa Monica-Malibu public school system sent youngsters home early, although those who couldn’t be picked up stayed onsite.

“We understand that some homes, apartments and school indoor spaces are feeling the impact of the smoke and that there are extreme winds in some of our neighborhoods,” school Superintendent Ben Drati said.

One Santa Monica resident was startled awake by smell, her throat burning.

“It was so strong it was overwhelming,” said Zina Markevicius, who is a contributor to the Lookout. “I thought I had burned something in the oven. It smelled like you were sitting next to a campfire.”

Looking outside was like watching a sandstorm, she said, except it was gray with visible particulates.

"Even under a blue sky the particles are still falling," she said shortly after 2 p.m.

People on the streets covered their faces surgical masks to scarves, and steeled themselves against gusting winds.

Brian O’Neil, who lives in the Pico District’s Gandara Park neighborhood, spent the day worrying about the impact of the air on his many elderly neighbors.

His neighbors had planned a show of force at a City Council public hearing Tuesday night over a proposed childcare center on their street ("Controversy Over Childcare Center in Pico Neighborhood Goes to Santa Monica City Council," December 5, 2017).

But the air was too unhealthy for his friends to wade into, he said, especially those in their 80s and 90s.

“It’s awful out there,” he said.

He said neighbors asked the City early Tuesday to postpone the hearing.

Shortly after convening its meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, the council voted to continue the hearing to provide additional information on the item -- with apologies for the last notice.

“If you’re not already here, don’t head out,” said Council Member Kevin McKeown.

The hearing was set for January 23.

The National Weather Service said the windy conditions will continue through the week, although it is possible they peaked Tuesday.

Jorge Casuso contributed to this report

Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that an appeal of a day care center in the Pico Neighborhood was postponed due to the impact of the wildfires. The item was continued to provide additional information on the item.


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