Montebello Brush Fire Rattles Nerves

By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer

Montebello fire officials are still investigating how Monday’s fire in the Montebello Hills oil fields started, but say the fire did not come in contact with any oil extraction operations, and was only burning brush.

Fire crews on Monday chased a brush fire across more than 10 acres of the Montebello Hills, putting out most of it by the evening. Crews kept watch over the embers into Tuesday morning.

The city’s fire marshal is working with Los Angeles County authorities to investigate the cause of the fire, said Montebello Fire Department Chief Tim Wessel. According to Montebello Fire Battalion Chief Kevin Collinge, the fire started just before 3 p.m. at the center of the hills near the Plains Exploration and Production offices. By around 6 p.m., the fire was completely “knocked down.”

Production was halted and ten people were evacuated from the site, according to a hazardous materials spill report submitted by PXP, the oil and gas company that owns and operates the oil fields. A company representative contacted the state’s emergency management agency, concerned the brush fire could “impact infield piping, potentially releasing oil and gas into the environment.”

An update at around 7:30 p.m. stated there was no release of hazardous materials, and no waterways were affected.

Earlier that day, a flames and a black plume of smoke could be seen close up from some backyards in the neatly-manicured, residential neighborhood overlooked by the Montebello Hills, and from as far as the baseball fields at Grant Rea Park. People at the Montebello mall and in adjacent cities also reported seeing and smelling smoke.

The fire was thought to be contained by an initial firefight, but the fire persisted, helped along by an eastward blowing wind that escalated it into a three-alarm fire.

By 5 p.m., the fire had blazed across at least ten acres of the hills, just missing the oil derricks operated by Plains Exploration and Production, an oil and gas company. Firefighting crews from eleven agencies, including Los Angeles County, Vernon and Monterey Park joined the Montebello Fire Department in fighting the flames. In total, 21 engines and more than 200 firefighters were on the scene.

Authorities say the fire did not reach homes and no one was injured, though two power poles were burned down, exposing live power lines. Water to put out the fire was being pumped from nearby Legg Lake, where helicopters were stationed.

Access to the burning brush was limited. They relied mostly on helicopters to dump water over the fire, Wessel said.

Onlookers gathered behind police cones and weathered the hot sun Monday afternoon to get a glimpse of the flames.

“Look, another one!” three-year-old Nacho Martinez alerted his mother, Griselda, to a helicopter zipping over the hills and cascading water over flames that had just engulfed a tree. Griselda and her three sons were on their way to the Grant Rea Park water park, but stopped short when they saw the smoke. “It’s not something you see everyday,” she said.

Christina Escamilla, 31, had her cell phone out to capture the scene, which caught her attention as she drove along Beverly Boulevard. “Something like that you notice right away,” she said, and when she got closer, she realized the fire was near the historical Sanchez Adobe where she frequently walks her dog.

The Montebello brush fire was just one of the many fire emergencies happening simultaneously in the Southland earlier this week, including a brush fire at Griffith Park, the ongoing fire in Palmdale, and a small fire along the 710 freeway near Vernon, an indication that the fire season is now in full swing. Montebello residents and observers on Monday worried about the possible hazards of having an oil field going up in flames in their backyard.

“It’s dangerous, and pretty scary… when oil meets fire, you never know what’s going to happen,” said Miguel Samano, who was in the neighborhood visiting his brother.

Meanwhile, Geni Garcia said she has seen small fires in the hills on occasion, but never this big. No evacuation of nearby homes was called, but the 27-year Montebello resident found the fire too close for comfort. She had ventured out with her son to get a closer look at the progress of the fire, worried that it was not subsiding. “We’re residents so we have to make sure it’s not getting too close,” she said.

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July 12, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


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