Thousands evacuate California fires

November 15, 2008 6:25:07 PM PST
Southern Californians endured a third day of devastation Saturday as wind-blasted wildfires torched hundreds of mobile homes and mansions, forced thousands of people to flee and shut down major freeways.

No deaths were reported, but the Los Angeles police chief said he feared authorities might find bodies among the 500 burned dwellings in a devastated mobile home park that housed many senior citizens.

"We have almost total devastation here in the mobile park," Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said. "I can't even read the street names because the street signs are melting."

The series of fires has injured at least 20 people and destroyed hundreds of homes from coastal Santa Barbara to inland Riverside County, on the other side of the Los Angeles area. Smoke blanketed the nation's second-largest city and its suburbs Saturday, reducing the afternoon sun to a pale orange disk.

As night fell, a fire hopscotched through the winding lanes of modern subdivisions in Orange and Riverside counties, destroying more than 50 homes, some of them apparently mansions.

A blaze in the Sylmar community in the hillsides above Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley destroyed the mobile homes, nine single-family homes and several other buildings before growing to more than 8,000 acres -- more than 12 square miles. It was only 20 percent contained Saturday.

It sent residents fleeing in the dark Saturday morning as notorious Santa Ana winds topping 75 mph torched cars, bone-dry brush and much of Oakridge Mobile Home Park. The blaze, whose cause was under investigation, threatened at least 1,000 structures, city Fire Department spokeswoman Melissa Kelley said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles. Fire officials estimated 10,000 people were under orders to evacuate, including residents of the mobile home park.

At an evacuation center, Lucretia Romero, 65, wore a string of pearls and clutched the purse and jacket she snatched as firefighters shouted at them to flee hours earlier.

Her daughter, Lisa, 42, wore a bloodstained shirt and pants. A helicopter dropping water on their home caused the entryway ceiling to collapse. Debris scratched her forehead and gave her a black eye.

They were optimistic that their home of 30 years survived because firefighters were there when they left. But the family cat, Doris, was missing.

Lucretia Romero said she saw smoke above the hills beyond the front door and then, within an hour, saw that a canyon across from her home was red with flame.

"They would drop water, the water would squash the flames and then two minutes later the flames would come back," she said. Firefighters soon banged on the door and gave them 10 minutes to evacuate.

Flames swept across the park and scorched cypress trees, Ruda said. Firefighters had to flee, grabbing some residents and leaving hoses melted into the concrete.

Ruda produced a burned U.S. flag on a broken stick as a sign of hope and bravery for firefighters. "The home that this flag was flying from is gone," he said.

Police Chief William Bratton said cars were found in the debris at the park, raising concerns that bodies might be found. Crews were waiting for the ground to cool before bringing in search dogs, he said.

The Santa Anas -- dry winds that typically blow through Southern California between October and February -- tossed embers ahead of flames, jumping two interstate highways and sparking new flare-ups. Walls of flame raced up ridge lines covered in sun-baked brush and surrounded high-power transmission line towers.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said power lines were down in places, and he asked residents to conserve power to help avoid possible blackouts.

Shortly after midnight, the Sylmar fire burned to the edge of the Olive View-UCLA Medical Center campus, knocking out power and forcing officials to evacuate two dozen critical patients.

The shifting winds caused the fire to move uphill toward the San Gabriel Mountains, downhill toward homes and sometimes skip across canyons. It also jumped across Interstates 5 and 210, forcing the California Highway Patrol to shut down portions of both freeways and some connecting roads.

And as many as 54 homes were damaged or destroyed in a fire in Orange and Riverside counties, officials said. About 2,000 acres -- more than 3 square miles -- were charred, with more than 12,000 people in 4,500 dwellings ordered to evacuate in Anaheim alone.

An unknown number of apartments burned in the Cascades complex in Anaheim Hills, which has nearly 300 units. Firefighters said seven buildings of the large complex were gutted.

Devin Nathanson, 27, had put down a deposit on an apartment there and planned to move in Saturday. Instead, he watched from the road as it burned to the ground.

"At least none of my stuff was inside yet," he said.

Palm trees lining the entrance to the complex were ablaze, and two firefighters manned hoses at the swimming pool and sprayed water on the leasing center. The roof caved in with a loud bang.

A dozen buildings burned in the Riverside County town of Corona. Four city firefighters were slightly injured when the fast-moving flames swept over their fire engine, said Christy Romero, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Authority.

Winds began to decrease in the afternoon and were expected to drop further overnight, but humidity was expected to remain low.

The night before in Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles, 111 homes burned to the ground Thursday in the wealthy, star-studded community of Montecito.

About 800 firefighters continued to battle the blaze in the enclave, said Santa Barbara city fire spokesman John Ahlman.

Several multimillion-dollar homes and a small Christian college were damaged in Montecito, a town of 14,000 that has attracted celebrities such as Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas and Oprah Winfrey.

The cause of the fire is under investigation. At least 13 people were injured.


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