Southern California Battles Devastating Wildfires

November 17, 2008

Southern Californians weathered a fourth day of devastation on Sunday, as wind-blasted wildfires destroyed hundreds of residences, shut down major freeways and forced thousands of residents in the path of flames to flee to safety in four counties.

A fire in Sylmar in the hillsides above Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley destroyed 500 mobile homes, nine single-family homes and 11 commercial buildings, then grew to more than 8,000 acres — more than 12 square miles — and was only 20 percent contained. While winds had died down, allowing firefighters to make progress on stopping the flames, just a day before, on Saturday morning, Santa Ana winds topped 75 mph.

The Santa Anas — dry winds that typically blow through Southern California between October and February.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Orange and Riverside counties, a day after he did so to the northwest in Santa Barbara County, where at least 183 homes burned to the ground Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008, in Santa Barbara and adjacent Montecito.

More than 60 homes, some of them apparently mansions, were damaged or destroyed in a fire that erupted in the Santa Ana River bottom in the Riverside County city of Corona and spread west into the Orange County communities of Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills, hopscotching through winding lanes of modern subdivisions as night fell.

In addition, 50 units of the Cascades apartment complex in Anaheim Hills burned, Orange County fire spokeswoman Angela Garbiso said.

Garbiso said six firefighters from various agencies were injured, including four Corona firefighters who were hurt when flames swept over their engine. Two of the Corona crewmembers required hospital treatment but were released.

Firefighters scrambled as a sleet of embers hurled by the high winds ignited handfuls of homes scattered over miles of housing tracts.

“There’s fire everywhere. It’s just blowing through. We had a hard time keeping up because of all the different locations,” Fullerton fire Battalion Chief Terry Schulz said.

Nearly 5,900 acres were charred in Riverside and Orange counties, with more than 12,000 people in 4,500 dwellings under mandatory evacuation orders in Anaheim alone. Evacuation figures in other cities were no longer available. Containment was put at just 5 percent late Saturday.

A separate, 1,500-acre fire in the Orange County city of Brea destroyed the main building of a high school.

Many heat records were set as the region withered under the Santa Anas. Downtown Los Angeles was 20 degrees above normal at a record 93 degrees.

The Los Angeles blaze, whose cause was under investigation, threatened at least 1,000 structures, city Fire Department spokeswoman Melissa Kelley said. A burned resident was in serious condition, and four firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

Fire officials estimated that at its peak, 10,000 people were under orders to evacuate. However, many evacuation orders were lifted Saturday night as winds eased somewhat and firefighters made progress in containing sections of the blaze, Fire Department spokesman Ron Haralson said.

The evacuation was still in effect for residents of the Oakridge Mobile Home Park, where the 500 mobile homes were lost to the flames. Many had housed senior citizens.

Los Angeles police said five people were arrested for looting.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the Sylmar fire caused problems that temporarily shut down two electrical transmission lines, and he asked residents to conserve power to help avoid possible blackouts. However, no lines burned. For residents of Sylmar, at the edge of the Angeles National Forest beneath the San Gabriel Mountains, the fire underscored the hazards that come with living close to nature when the dangerous winds fan catastrophic blazes. Residents of a nearby trailer park lost their homes in a fire a month ago.

Northwest of Los Angeles, authorities raised the number of homes lost in a fire that began in the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito on Thursday night. County Communication Director William Boyer said 106 homes burned in the city of Santa Barbara and 77 burned in Montecito.

According to AIR Worldwide, the fire burned through 2,500 acres of land, destroyed more than 100 homes, many of them multi-million dollar mansions, and raged across the Westmont College campus, burning several dormitories, faculty housing, and other buildings. At least 13 people were injured in that fire.

The Montecito area has one of the most exclusive zip codes in the country. The median sale price of homes in the luxury neighborhoods that dot the coastal foothills is about $2.7 million. Many of the properties in the area are characterized by Spanish Colonial Revival 5th architecture. Buildings are constructed of stucco walls and chimney finishes, have shed (flat) roofs covered with low-pitched clay tile and terra cotta or cast-concrete ornaments. The homes generally have little cleared area separating them from the surrounding vegetation, which consists of an equal mix of chaparral, brush, and conifers. However, in many cases, even homes that do have partial setbacks will be affected by encroaching flames, depending on the direction of the fire and accompanying winds.

Sources: Air Worldwide, AP

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