Fickle destruction

A million who have fled Calif. flames await news

October 24, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

SAN DIEGO -- Through a dirty fog of ash and soot, a sport utility vehicle dashed up one street and then another, turning back again and again as it met police barricades, firetrucks and then a wall of glowing, billowing smoke.

Just beyond, on the other side of the hill where the smoke boiled up, sat the home of Ben and Marla Martin, who finally pulled over, defeated.

"Look, there's a helicopter, Ben," Marla Martin said. "That's a good sign, right?"

Four firetrucks raced past, and a police officer began closing this street off, too, in an area where the main fire had passed but a sinister arm reached out, proving that - three days in - the destructive work of one of the biggest wildfires in state history was not quite done.

By late yesterday, more than 1,800 homes and other structures and about 600 square miles in seven counties had been consumed by at least 16 fires, their flames fueled by high desert winds and hot temperatures that remained largely impervious to air attacks, garden hoses, fire retardant or prayers for relief.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the flames were threatening 68,000 more homes.

Authorities said the blazes, raging from the Simi Valley northwest of Los Angeles to the Mexican border, were responsible for two deaths, and possibly five others related to evacuation in San Diego County. More than four dozen firefighters and civilians were reported to have suffered burns.

Off West Bernardo Drive in northern San Diego, the capriciousness of the wind-driven blaze left some houses untouched in their glorious peach stucco amid green grass and well-tended flower beds. Next door, twisted, blackened heaps of that same dream lay smoldering, a garden sprinkler still clack-clack-clacking in vain.

Joe Fiore of Aguamiel Drive saw it all, this fickle, fiery tornado of smoke and tennis-ball-size embers blasting through as the main fire passed. Propane tanks and dried palm fronds exploded; a house here went up in minutes while another escaped damage.

Fiore refused to leave the neighborhood off Interstate 15 that he and others never thought would be in danger. He stood on his roof for hours, hosing it down, nearly falling. His wife caught an ember in her eye and rushed to the hospital, while Fiore, an emergency room physician, battled on, unwilling to abandon the house he has lived in since 1986.

"That fire came over the mountain in minutes, like nothing I could ever imagine," Fiore said. "It was the wind - the wind was like a funnel blowing it right through here, and the embers were everywhere. I had like 20 campfires going all around my house I had to put out."

Hundreds of thousands of people did heed orders to leave, packing a football stadium near downtown and the Del Mar Fairgrounds on the coast. Normally busy Lake Arrowhead, a town northeast of Los Angeles where more than 100 homes burned, was virtually abandoned to firefighters and emergency workers.

Evacuees grasped for any shred of news, any word on whether they had won or lost the wildfire lottery.

Among them were Kiat Tohsakul and John Becker, who live less than a quarter-mile apart in the hard-hit Rancho Bernardo community in northern San Diego.

Tohsakul, a local television news program manager, rested assured Monday that the fire was miles from his house after viewing scenes of the area shot by one of the station's cameramen. But yesterday afternoon, he sat in his driveway taking deep breaths at the sight of the roof caved in and his possessions charred.

"What did I do to deserve this?" he said, looking at several unscathed homes next to his. "It's just unbelievable."

Becker returned from out of town to find his house had only a touch of damage to a fence.

"I have no idea why we got saved and others didn't," he said.

Local TV overnight had fixed on the image of a large house, a 10,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style hilltop jewel, burning to the ground in Rancho Santa Fe, a wealthy enclave. It belonged to Bob Jaffe, a venture capitalist, who visited the wreck yesterday. His car somehow survived.

"Yes, they managed to save my Porsche," he said. "But I'd much rather they had saved my daughter's stuffed animals."

The police escorted some residents in north San Diego to retrieve medicine and urgent belongings in the afternoon. That definition was flexible.

"Bongos? Why the heck are you bringing bongos! We don't need bongos!" Gerald DaSilva shouted to his daughter as they raced in and out of their relatively undamaged house and loaded their pickup truck. "Look at all this stuff - CDs, magazines - come on, what is all this stuff? Get your phone chargers."

Some residents fumed at what they considered a slow response by firefighters, who have struggled to rush from fire to fire across Southern California.

"Just now they are getting aircraft up there? Unbelievable," said Rex Houser, who packed his disabled father and four Jack Russell terriers into his old Camaro and watched the fire march on a hillside near his house.

In the burn areas, and even places far from them, a visitor might at first assume that the heavy air was the shroud of mist common along the coast. But the acrid smell detectable miles away would quickly dispel the notion - if the singed hillsides, closed roads and occasional odd scenes wrought by desperation did not.

In the otherwise deserted parking lot of North County Fair, an Escondido shopping mall, several horses stood hitched to trailers, munching on feed. Their owners had fled the nearby canyons as the fire approached Monday. They had no other place to take the animals and were not sure the authorities or mall owner would let them stay.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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