In Southern California suburb, wildfires create a `war zone'

150 homes destroyed in one of hardest-hit areas

October 28, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SAN DIEGO - Fires happen all the time, and what's left behind is never pretty. But seldom is the devastation as complete as it is here in Scripps Ranch, a middle-class community in the suburbs north of San Diego.

A few days ago, the corner of Fairbrook Road and Thornbush Court looked like most neighborhoods in America, with Halloween decorations on the doors, minivans in the driveways and kids in the back yard.

Look in any direction from the street corner today and little is left except for brick chimneys that stand like eerie sentinels over a charcoal landscape. Melted plastic toys still smolder in the yards, while blackened garden hoses - signs of a desperate last effort to save a family home - snake between the twisted metal remains of cars.

One hundred and fifty houses in this neighborhood burned up in a few hours Sunday, some of the worst damage of any area of Southern California in its continuing bout with wildfires.

At one point, 100 houses were on fire at the same time here. Hot winds drove the flames more quickly than the 190 firefighters who battled them could keep up - even driving as fast as they could in their trucks.

"This is beyond belief," said California Gov. Gray Davis, a Vietnam veteran, after walking through the smoldering remnants yesterday. "It's like a war zone."

Winds died down yesterday, making firefighters' jobs easier. But dozens of wildfires still raged, casting an inescapable black cloud over the region and prompting residents to don masks to go to work or the grocery store.

Thousands of residents, from north of Los Angeles to the Mexico border, were ordered from their homes yesterday, and some neighborhoods were still being evacuated even as the sun - in a sky tinted red from the smoke - was setting. Officials say it could be a week or more before all the fires are extinguished, and that's only with good weather.

Yesterday's evacuees joined thousands who sought refuge in makeshift shelters at local community centers, schools and churches. It could be several days before many are allowed to return to their homes - or what's left of them.

As flames closed in on Valley Center over the weekend, a neighbor ran to Nancy Morphew's door to warn her. But Morphew didn't seem worried about getting out in time.

"[Morphew] met me at the front door and said, `I know, I know. Go help other people,' " David Wallace recalled. "She seemed like she had a plan."

After the fire tore through the neighborhood Sunday, Morphew was found dead in the road, her burned-out truck sitting at the bottom of a steep ditch along Yellow Brick Road.

Like many of the 15 people who died in the wildfires burning across Southern California, Morphew, 51, apparently underestimated how fast the flames were moving.

Morphew apparently was overcome by flames after climbing out of the ditch, according to the county medical examiner's office.

Elsewhere in Valley Center, Ashley Roach died Sunday after fire trapped the car in which she was riding. The young woman had tried to escape with her brother. He was rescued by firefighters.

The death toll rose to 15 yesterday after the bodies of two people were found on a road near San Diego. Officials said it may be weeks before final tallies of deaths and damage are complete.

At least 1,134 homes have been destroyed and more than 483,000 acres scorched in a swath of Southern California stretching from the suburbs northeast of Los Angeles to Mexico.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, said his home near San Diego was among the hundreds damaged or destroyed.

State Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi said there is no official damage estimate yet, but it is expected to be in the hundreds of millions.

President Bush declared four Southern California counties, including San Diego and Los Angeles counties, major disaster areas, opening up federal grants and loans to residents who lost their homes and businesses. Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger is to visit Washington tomorrow, where he plans to meet with officials to smooth the path for funds to rebuild.

Schools in San Diego were ordered closed for a second day today, as officials feared the effects of soot and smoke on children.

Black smoke also caused flight delays and cancellations throughout Southern California yesterday, and forced the National Football League to move last night's game between the San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins to Phoenix.

Firefighter Russ Simon fought the fires at Scripps Ranch for two consecutive days. When he arrived, flames were nearly 100 feet high, and stretched through the neighborhood of half-million-dollar homes for two miles.

"I'll tell you, it was frightening - even for those of us who have trained our whole lives for this," said Simon, a 14-year veteran. "I've never seen anything move that fast."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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