Blazes merge in California, form lethal walls of fire

Death toll reaches 14

650 houses are destroyed

October 27, 2003|By Joel Rubin, Tony Perry and Richard Fausset | Joel Rubin, Tony Perry and Richard Fausset,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES - A crescent of fire continued to rage through Southern California yesterday, destroying hundreds of homes, claiming 14 lives and throwing the entire region into an eerie, smoky half-light.

A searing Santa Ana wind blew flames over mountain slopes, burning more than 300 houses and bringing the fire's two-day toll to about 650 destroyed homes.

The combined fires, which stretched over 250,000 acres in an arc from Ventura County to the Mexican border, were among the most destructive in modern California's recent history.

More than 5,000 firefighters battled the infernos, at least two of which were believed to have been caused by arson.

"It goes wherever it wants to go and consumes whatever it wants," Capt. Doug Johnston of the Kern County Fire Department said of one of the largest fires, in San Bernardino County. "It's humbling. There's only so much you can do with a wind-driven fire like this."

The fires did their worst damage, in terms of property loss, along the ragged fringe of mountain slopes where suburbia meets the wilderness - a classic Southern California landscape that has long lured people to build homes in forest and brushland despite the near certainty that they will eventually be threatened by fire.

Most deadly

The most deadly of the fires rampaged through dry brush in northeastern San Diego County. At least 11 people died in the Cedar and Paradise fires, most trapped in their cars as they tried to flee.

The worst of the two, the Cedar Fire, also destroyed about 50 homes in Ramona and the Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta neighborhoods of San Diego.

More destructive in terms of property loss were twin blazes centered in San Bernardino County. The two converged yesterday near Devore, according to Norm Walker, a division chief with the U.S. Forest Service.

That created a contiguous band of more than 60,000 blackened acres from Claremont in the west, where fire crews managed to gain control over the firestorm, to Running Springs in the east, where the blaze continued to burn out of control between Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear.

A third major fire raged in Ventura County, charring at least 80,000 acres of hillsides and rangeland, destroying or damaging eight homes and prompting evacuation of a large county jail and neighborhoods in Simi Valley, Moorpark, Fillmore and Santa Paula.

Reagan library

At one point yesterday, the fire approached the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, but was eventually beaten back without causing any damage there.

Residents of northern San Diego County awoke yesterday to wind-whipped flames racing toward homes and news that two major brush fires had broken out over night. It was soon clear that few, if any, firefighters were available to stop the advancing flames.

At least 11 persons were reported killed by the fires by late yesterday, most trapped in their vehicles as they attempted to flee from Ramona to Lakeside, through the Barona Indian Reservation, officials said.

Much of the region's fire equipment and many San Diego County firefighters had been deployed to fight blazes near Los Angeles, as well as a fire that broke out last week at Camp Pendleton.

As some homeowners tried to fight the flames with garden hoses, San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy pleaded for residents to flee.

"Your life is more important than your house," he said. By late in the day Murphy said: "It's a tragedy to see what this fire has done."

Fire personnel acknowledged being overwhelmed by the number, speed and erratic movements of the fires. California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Cathy Fritz called the situation in the county, "a nightmare. It's a mess."

"We have everything sent out that we can possibly send out," said fire dispatcher Ron Dumbey. "And we are asking for all that we can get."

By nightfall, more than 100,000 acres of San Diego County had burned in fires in the northern part of the county and near the U.S.-Mexico border.

More than 200 structures were destroyed or damaged.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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