Wind-Whipped California Wildfires Double in Size

October 15, 2008

Powerful winds stoked three major wildfires on after destroying dozens of homes, forcing thousands to flee and killing two people.

The fires have charred more than 20 square miles in suburban Los Angeles and northern San Diego County in three days, with the fiercest blazes burning in the San Fernando Valley.

More than 2,000 firefighters and a fleet of water- and retardant-dropping aircraft battled fierce flames Tuesday morning. Intense winds caused a fire in the west end of the valley to double in size from 5,000 acres to nearly 10,000 acres overnight, fire officials said.

A second fire at the northeast end of the valley was 70 percent contained on Tuesday, Inspector Paul Hartwell said. Officials reduced the acreage to 4,800 acres from 5,300 acres.

About 3,000 homes remain evacuated, and winds could return in the afternoon, Hartwell said.

Santa Ana winds were gusting at 50 mph in parts of the valley, county fire officials said.

Authorities lifted an evacuation order for about 1,000 homes threatened by a wildfire on Camp Pendleton, but said another 500 homes sitting on the border with the Marine base are to remain vacated.

On the base, Marine Cpl. Priscilla Vitale said the fire has scorched more than 3,000 acres and was about 25 percent contained Tuesday. The fires that started Monday on the base’s training ranges were not caused by any type of military training, Vitale said.

“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.”

Traffic was snarled when the 118 Ronald Reagan Freeway closed in both directions for the second time as flames and smoke approached the roadway, the California Highway Patrol said. It reopened after about an hour Tuesday morning.

The freeway was the scene of a fatal wreck Monday when a tow truck rear-ended a car and killed the driver. California Highway Patrol Officer Leland Tang said traffic stalled because firefighters were going by as fire neared the route.

A second fatality was discovered Monday in the rugged canyon lands 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.

Authorities confirmed more than three dozen mobile homes burned in the west end of the valley and 19 structures — some of them homes — were destroyed at the northeast end. 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.

A fire broke out near the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego County Tuesday morning and forced the evacuation of about 300 homes in the town of Campo, said Sheriff’s Lt. Anthony Ray. It had burned about 150 acres on both side of Highway 94 but no structures have been burned and no one has been injured, Ray said.

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.

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.

Associated Press writers Greg Risling, Thomas Watkins, Alicia Chang, Terence Chea, Christina Hoag, John Rogers and Chelsea Carter contributed to this report.

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