Strong Winds Stoke California Wildfires

Firefighting crews in California are battling three massive wildfires -- two just north of Los Angeles and one in San Diego County. The blazes have charred nearly 13,000 acres, destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate. At least two deaths are blamed on the fires, which are spreading fast thanks to Santa Ana winds gusting to 50 mph.

Strong Santa Ana winds perhaps more powerful than those that arrived a day earlier were expected early Tuesday. The winds were expected to peak Tuesday night.

Ron Haralson of the Los Angeles County Fire Department said evacuations related to the Marek Fire were lifted at 9 a.m. Tuesday, except for Lopez Canyon, which remains evacuated. Haralson says residents of Kagel Canyon will be allowed back only with identification. However, livestock was not being immediately allowed back in. Also, all freeway onramps and offramps along the Foothill (210) Freeway and the Ronald Reagan (118) Freeway were reopened at 9 a.m.

Strong Santa Ana winds perhaps more powerful than those that arrived a day earlier were expected throughout the day and were expected to peak Tuesday night.

The Sesnon Fire in Porter Ranch broke out late Monday morning and grew quickly to scorch around 5,000 acres, but by Tuesday morning it had expanded to 9,872 acres and was to no extent contained, fire commanders said. The number of structures destroyed or damaged remained at 19. Firefighters were working to keep the fire from spreading toward the sea.

Two people died Monday as flames raged in the northeastern and western San Fernando Valley, including one motorist killed in a rear-end freeway collision after a looming fire stopped traffic.

More than 2,000 firefighters and a fleet of water- and retardant-dropping aircraft battled the 4,726-acre Marek Fire at the northeast end of the valley and the 5,000-acre Sesnon Fire in the Porter Ranch area at the west end. Combined, more than 15 square miles had burned.

"The fire wants to make its way to the coast, and we're going to do our level best to stop it," said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey. "Two-thirds of our department is on the line."

Winds had been briefly calm on Monday night but were expected to pick up early Tuesday, with gusts of up to 80 mph in higher elevations, said Los Angeles County fire Inspector Paul Hartwell.

Another 1,500 acres scorched Camp Pendleton in north San Diego County, forcing the evacuation of more than 1,400 homes at the Marine base and in nearby Oceanside.

Authorities confirmed more than three dozen mobile homes burned in the Marek Fire, and 19 structures — some of them homes — were destroyed by the Sesnon Fire. Commercial sites burned in both fires.

Fire officials alerted other communities to the west in the Ventura County city of Simi Valley and south to Malibu, 20 miles away, as an ominous plume streamed over neighborhoods and far out to sea.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and urged residents to be prepared for anything.

"Winds are causing fire conditions to change by the hour, which is why it is so important that residents in the areas surrounding these wildfires heed warnings from public safety officials to evacuate," Schwarzenegger said.

Firefighters on Monday were struggling with the resurgent, day-old Marek Fire when a new blaze erupted at midmorning a few miles to the west on Oat Mountain above Porter Ranch and quickly grew as winds blew from the northeast at 35 mph to 45 mph with gusts to 70 mph, spitting embers among homes.

Residents were not allowed to drive into one of Porter Ranch's gated communities, so they parked their cars, ran to their homes and carried out whatever they could carry in pillow cases, in their arms, sacks and suitcases. Some ran out clutching paintings.

In nearby Twin Lakes, a neighborhood of narrow streets perched above the 118 Freeway, the fire raced through the community of about 95 homes, destroying at least four.

Matthew Vitiello, 46, stuck it out with his two dogs as embers rained down around him and a nearby home burned. Asked why he decided not to evacuate, Vitiello pointed to a pine tree across the street.

"If that sucker goes, then it's time for me to go," he said.

Fire officials warned residents to take a different approach if fires continue to spread.

"In some situations you may not be able to even outrun this fire," said P. Michael Freeman, Los Angeles County's fire chief.

A fatality was discovered Monday at the Marek Fire, an area where neighborhoods abut rugged canyonlands below the mountainous Angeles National Forest. The victim was a man who appeared to be a transient living with a dog in a makeshift shelter, officials said. Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa said it would take some time to identify the victim.

Another man was killed in a fiery rear-end collision on the 118 Freeway. California Highway Patrol Officer Leland Tang said traffic stopped because firefighters were going by as fire neared the route. Four vehicles were involved. At some point, motorists stopped on the freeway because of the flames and CHP officers turned them around to use an on-ramp as an exit, said CHP Capt. J.D. Goodwin.

An estimated 1,200 people were evacuated due to the Marek Fire, which was just 5 percent contained. Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mark Savage said 37 or 38 mobile homes were destroyed by that blaze. Various industrial sites also burned.

"We could have had an army there and it would not have stopped it," Battalion Chief Mario Rueda said. "Wind is king here, it's dictating everything we are doing."

Zarifeh Nadershahi, among the residents resting Monday night in a evacuation center near Porter Ranch, said she left her home after seeing flames surround parts of her neighborhood. She grabbed the first items she could and fled, clutching some important papers and home videos of her children.

The wind is now her biggest concern.

"When the wind comes in Porter Ranch, it shakes the whole house," she said. "The winds here are very strong."

The dry and warm Santa Ana winds typically blow into Southern California between October and February, priming vegetation for fires by slashing moisture levels. Last October, fires fanned by Santa Anas destroyed 2,196 homes and burned a combined 800 square miles in Southern California.

The Marek Fire began early Sunday during the first significant Santa Ana condition of the season, and about 1,000 firefighters from city, county, state and federal agencies were deployed. The cause was under investigation.

The blaze died down overnight and containment was estimated as high as 20 percent, but authorities warned it remained a sleeping giant. Fierce winds returned before dawn Monday and sent it raging again.

Glenn Bell described a chaotic scene at daybreak Monday as hundreds of people tried to escape the Blue Star Mobile Home Park on the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains. He said he and another park resident broke a padlock on an emergency exit gate at the back of the park.

"It was a death trap," said Bell, 50. "If we hadn't broke open that gate, there would be people dead up there."

As he fled with his wife, Jean, and their dog, Clyde, Bell said he looked back to see his home going up in flames.

"We lost 25 years worth of marriage in there," Bell told a reporter at the evacuation center.

The wildfire in San Diego County began on an explosives training range at Camp Pendleton. The cause of the fire was not immediately clear.

Marine Sgt. Darhonda Rodela, a base spokeswoman, said the American Red Cross set up a shelter on the base for families affected by the fire. About 2,000 personnel on the base were evacuated.

Outside the base, evacuees were being sent to shelters set up at El Camino High School and Oceanside High School, said Jane McVey, a spokeswoman for the city of Oceanside.

Firefighters also contained small blazes near Santa Clarita in northern Los Angeles County, near a Santa Paula oil facility in Ventura County, in Newport Beach and along a freeway in San Bernardino.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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