A half-million people flee California blazes

October 23, 2007|By Tony Perry, Garrett Therolf and Mitchell Landsberg | Tony Perry, Garrett Therolf and Mitchell Landsberg,LOS ANGELES TIMES

A wind-whipped firestorm destroyed more than 700 homes and businesses in Southern California yesterday, the second day of its onslaught, and more than half a million people in San Diego County were told to evacuate their homes.

Gale-force winds turned hillside canyons into giant blowtorches from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. Though the worst damage was around San Diego and Lake Arrowhead, fires threatened Malibu, parts of Orange and Ventura counties and the Agua Dulce area near Santa Clarita. A new blaze was menacing homes yesterday evening in northern Los Angeles County.

Calling it "a tragic time for California," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in seven counties and redeployed California National Guard members from the border to support state and local firefighters. He stressed how much California officials have learned since the wildfires of October 2003, which raged over much of the same terrain.

But as the day wore on, it became clear that any hard-earned knowledge was no match for natural forces that were overwhelming the ability of firefighters to control them.

"The issue this time is not preparedness," said San Diego City Council President Scott Peters. "It's that the event is so overwhelming."

Pat Helsing, 59, evacuated her home in the Scripps Ranch area, much as she had done four years earlier. "It seems scarier this time," she said. "The fire is everywhere in San Diego now. You don't know where you can go to escape it."

By late yesterday, Southern California fires had burned more than 269,000 acres - roughly 420 square miles - and destroyed hundreds of buildings. No precise tally was available because officials could not get close to many of the burned areas. Remarkably, only one person was known to have died, although it was possible that more fatalities would be discovered. At least 32 people had been injured, including nine firefighters.

Near Malibu, where fire Sunday had burned into the center of town, the focus yesterday was in the hills, where firefighters on the ground and in the air were trying to prevent the flames from marching across Las Flores Canyon.

"It's trying to move toward Topanga Canyon, parallel to the coastline," said Manhattan Beach Battalion Chief Frank Chiella. Firefighters were attempting to stay ahead of the fire and funnel it toward the ocean.

Two fires on opposite sides of Lake Arrowhead had burned about 2,000 acres by yesterday evening, destroying 138 buildings and prompting the mandatory evacuation of hundreds of residents from resort communities.

In northern Los Angeles County, the Buckweed fire had swept through 35,000 acres, destroying 20 homes and two bridges, and causing the evacuation of about 15,000 people before being partly contained.

As was the case in 2003, the most devastating fires were in San Diego County, where, in some areas, stretched-thin firefighters were forced to write off seemingly entire swaths of homes. Along Highway 78, near the San Diego Wild Animal Park, homes burned unchecked on both sides of the highway and the only firefighters in sight were heading out.

San Diego Fire Rescue Battalion Chief John Tomson worried that if the wind did not die down, fires could burn through San Diego to the Pacific Ocean. "We're not going to stop it," he said. "I don't have any idea even where it is anymore. I'm not sure anybody knows where it is anymore."

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender said in a radio interview that he expected the fires to be worse than the Cedar fire of 2003, the worst fire in California history. The Cedar fire burned 270,000 acres, destroyed more than 5,000 buildings and killed 15 people.

By the end of the day, there were glimmers of optimism.

"Today was a day of twists and turns, but twists and turns for the better," said Chief Ray Chaney, air tactical group supervisor with the state fire agency.

Speaking from the Ramona Airport, where a command center was located, he said: "There are certainly areas where we're having difficulty getting air crews and ground crews to the fire."

But, he said, in the Deer Horn Valley, just north of the Mexican border, "we were able to make a stand and succeeded." He said a DC-10 water tanker was able to tamp down the fire to the point where "it went from black boiling flame to a white smoke."

Still, in Poway, a city of about 50,000 northeast of San Diego, a fork of the Witch Creek Fire exploded at dusk and began racing across hillside developments peppered with million-dollar homes.

Seventy structures, almost all of them homes, had been lost by 7:30 p.m., said City Attorney Lisa Foster. About 7,000 households were under a mandatory evacuation, and about two-thirds of the town's population had left. There had been no reported injuries to firefighters or civilians.

Tony Perry, Garrett Therolf and Mitchell Landsberg write for the Los Angeles Times.

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