Monday, October 22, 2007

Southland wildfires rage

La Times

Agua Dulce fire
Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times
The Agua Dulce fire reached the edge of Santa Clarita Valley late Sunday evening. The blaze destroyed several homes, including this one on Camp Plenty Road.
There are more than a dozen blazes across seven counties. Flames threaten northern San Diego, forcing 30,000 homes to be evacuated.
By Tony Perry, Louis Sahagun and Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
10:51 AM PDT, October 22, 2007
Unrestrained fires stoked by gale-force winds moved into northern San Diego this morning, prompting authorities to evacuate more than 30,000 homes and leading to clogged roads in one of more than a dozen fast-moving blazes burning across Southern California.

"If you see a fire, please evacuate immediately. Don't wait to be told to leave," San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said at a news conference this morning. Some evacuated were hundreds of patients at Pomerado Hospital and a nursing home in suburban Poway, officials said.

Qualcomm Stadium and the Del Mar Fairgrounds opened as evacuation centers, and officials made more than 30,000 "reverse 911" calls to tell people to evacuate. Schools throughout the county and at UC San Diego were closed. At least a dozen homes were lost.

"I could see the flames when I was trying to get the cats in the car. I couldn't breathe unless I pressed my face into the car. I'd just take a deep breath and run back into the house to get more things. It was very scary," said Shannon Spilman, 31, who had evacuated to Escondido High School north of San Diego late Sunday night.

Hundreds of people were pouring into the school this morning.

The Witch Creek Fire in the northeast part of the county and the Harris Fire near the Mexican border were burning out of control, just two of the fires that scarred more than 40,000 acres in California from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara County. At least one person was killed and about 20 injured Sunday as hard-pressed firefighters fought against Santa Ana winds.

Winds that mellowed overnight were likely to exceed 60 mph by mid-morning, fire officials said, as they worried whether their resources were stretched too thin. Red-flag conditions, indicating high winds and low humidity, were expected throughout the region.

San Diego County was among the hardest hit, and Interstate 15 was closed south of Escondido. Fire moved south into the city of San Diego through the San Pasqual Valley, heading toward the Wild Animal Park. The animal park evacuated its staff to the San Diego Zoo, and some animals were moved to a fire-resistant hospital on the park property, including California condors, several bird species, some snakes and some smaller mammals. Larger animals were in their open areas.

"There are lots of ponds for the animals to retreat to," said a Wild Animal Park spokesman. The park has fire breaks around its perimeter, and the fire has not entered the park.

The community of Ramona, with about 36,000 people, was evacuated. But officials said they were frustrated that some people were not leaving, forcing agencies to send personnel needed elsewhere.

"The public has to respond better than they are," said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender.

Firefighters targeted the Guejito Fire, burning in Rancho Bernardo, a northern neighborhood of San Diego, near Interstate 15 and Highway 56, said John Langford, a spokesman for San Diego Fire and Rescue Department. The fire started near Santa Ysabel, a small city to the northeast of San Diego, and burned west throughout the night, Langford said.

"It's burning so fast we don't have an acreage" count, he said.

Rancho Bernardo is known for its elderly residents, Langford said. He said the department was focusing on trying to rescue people from homes and alerting people to evacuate to Qualcomm Stadium.

Fewer than 100 firefighters are in reserve to protect the 400-square-mile city of San Diego, Langford said.

"We're stripped down to that," he said. "We have all our forces trying to fight this, everything available."

It was a complaint common among officials throughout the region.

Battling fires on so many fronts was straining local supplies, said Inspector Sam Padilla, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Firefighters "have had little sleep. Individuals are doing what they can," he said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. At least one blaze, the Santiago Fire in Orange County, was believed to be arson, officials said this morning. Two other fires might have been caused by downed power lines.

"We'll be going door to door," said one deputy as he headed off in his cruiser.

More than 1,500 firefighters were battling the blaze in Malibu. On Sunday, helicopters had been especially valuable, dropping retardant. The aircraft were on the ground during the night, but some reconnaissance flights resumed this morning with full aerial attacks expected after daylight.

Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Bob Goldman stood this morning on the driveway of Fire Station No. 70 at Carbon Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway. Flames headed his way.

"This fire really fooled me. Last night when I went to bed I thought, 'Ah, this fire is just going to punk around on the hillside, it's not particularly active.' But when I woke up this morning, I was shocked. I never thought it would reach my fire station."

Like many fire officials, he said he was worried that the fire was on the verge of moving into nearby Las Flores Canyon, just to the east. The canyon is a designated "trigger point," meaning that if it becomes engulfed in flames, plans call for ordering the evacuation of the 12,000 to 14,000 people who live in Topanga Canyon to the east.

Authorities had gone on fire alert over the weekend as the desert winds began their annual attack on the region. But no one expected the number of the fires that lighted up the area.

There was no immediate cause of the fires, though downed power lines were reported in the Malibu area. An estimated 17,000 homes were without power in the region.

Some of the worst devastation included two beloved landmarks in Malibu. Among the losses this time were Castle Kashan, an ornate, 10,000-square-foot hillside home that loomed over Malibu Lagoon, and the Malibu Presbyterian Church.

In Orange County, a fire that broke out in the area of Silverado Canyon and Santiago Canyon roads quickly swelled Sunday evening and moved toward the Portola Springs and Northwood communities. At 11 p.m., fire officials said they were asking residents to evacuate two of the most endangered neighborhoods. Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather told a televised news conference that the fire was arson and that officials had identified three points where it began.

The South Coast Air Quality District issued a warning that air quality in portions of Los Angeles County could reach unhealthy levels because of the fires and urged residents to avoid unnecessary outdoor activities in smoky areas.

The Agua Dulce blaze, dubbed the Buckweed fire, began shortly before 1 p.m. Sunday and grew in just a few hours into a dynamo that had charred about 25,000 acres. The fire, which doubled overnight, moved so rapidly that firefighters had to move their command center five times, retreating gradually to Santa Clarita.

According to Henry Rodriguez, public information officer for Los Angeles County Fire Department, the fire is 10% contained but is spreading to the southwest.

Twenty-five homes have burned, and 800 people were evacuated.

"This fire is the No. 1 priority in the state," Rodriguez said.

In Ventura County, crews were battling the Ranch Fire, which started Saturday night in Angeles National Forest about eight miles northeast of Castaic. Early today, it was burning toward Fillmore, where residents were encouraged to evacuate Sunday afternoon. Later Sunday, the evacuation order became mandatory.

In all, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department ordered evacuations for more than 1,000 people living in Hasley, Oak, Piru, Dominguez and Lackler canyons.

The fire, which charred about 12,500 acres and destroyed 25 sheds, corrals and other structures, was 10% contained. The cause was unknown.

"On the list of priorities, it's No. 1," said Roger Richcreek, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service said the fire threatened at least 300 homes as it traveled southwest from Los Angeles County into Ventura County.

Also in Ventura County, the Night Sky fire, which started in the Lexington Community south of Moorpark, threatened some 250 homes and other buildings.

In San Bernardino County, the largest of three brush fires was about 300 acres near the Sierra Lakes subdivision in Fontana.

"That's our wind tunnel for the Santa Anas," said Tracey Martinez of the San Bernardino County Fire Department. Residents of about 500 homes were evacuated and one vacant structure burned, but authorities were hopeful they could head off any other damage.

Times staff writers Bettina Boxall, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Scott Glover and Mitchell Landsberg contributed to this report.

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