“I could see it start from TV Hill,” John Palminteri told me. “It was just about 5:45 when I saw the first flames near Mountain Drive. For the first 15 minutes the flames seemed to be heading uphill, exploding up through 44-year-old brush.”
But as I headed up to the Riviera, the flames seemed to be subsiding. In actuality the wind was shifting and heading downhill in a southwest direction. Almost immediately the fire threatened residents on Mountain Drive and erratic winds were pushing waves of embers in every direction. As I reached the entrance to Westmont College, I could see a palm tree almost directly above me beginning to burn. As the winds picked up, its fronds sent cascading embers directly downhill toward the campus.
Sheriff’s deputies on duty near the campus wouldn’t let media beyond that point. Apparently there were downed power poles higher up on Mountain Drive and there was a real danger of being cut off by the quick-moving flames.
At the intersection near the campus entrance, several Los Padres fire command officers were busy assessing the situation. The combination of darkness, howling winds, heavy smoke, and constant barbardment of red-hot coals made it almost impossible to see anything. “We’ve got another Sycamore Canyon Fire on our hands,” Stan Smith tells me. Smith heads Los Prietos Hot Shots and his crew may be called in as soon as fire plans can be established. “Tonight we’re in for trouble down here,” Smith adds, “but tomorrow we’ll be dealing with fire on the upper mountain too.”
Just then Los Padres Battalion Chief Mark von Tillow arrives. Quickly they confirm radio frequencies and are just about ready to move when a woman comes down the road from Westmont screaming, “There’s a house on fire right up the hill!” I follow von Tillow on foot as he screams up the hill looking for the flames.
From Cold Spring Road the fire is more of an intense red glow that fills the sky and silhouettes oak, sycamore, and palm trees, but as I move up the road just a few hundred yards the winds begin to turn full force and the coals whip across the road. First I see the cars on fire: first a solitary Toyota Tacoma, then a sports car, and in the parking lot beyond more and more.
Everything in front of me is burning, the flames in the trees 30-40 feet high at times. Ahead of me the road disappears into the smoke and a wall of red coals. I can go no further. The sounds are intense: howling wind, the sound of explosions - who knows what they are - fill the air.
In a few minutes the fire front moves on, the smoke clears a bit and I can venture a bit further. I reach an intersection and head downhill. A house on my left is about to catch fire. On my right the roof of another house is just beginning to burn. Further down the road several more structures are completely engulfed. Ahead of me I spot the Westmont library. Fire surrounds it, the flames reflecting on its windows.
Eventually I need to retreat back to my car, my eyes burning both from the smoke and what I’ve seen. This is the fire that by last week’s rain it appeared we had escaped for another year, the one some feared the Gap Fire might become. By the look of what I’ve seen, Westmont College is in serious trouble. Because the fire has spread so quickly there is no structure protection underway at all. The roads are eerily silent but the flames are spreading throughout the tree-filled canopy. While the major buildings such as the library may survive, tomorrow Westmont students will wake up to a scene they have never seen before.