LOS ANGELES – Metropolitan Los Angeles was seemingly surrounded by flames Saturday, with three wildfires consuming spacious mansions and tiny mobile homes at the edges where bone-dry wilderness meets burgeoning development.
Notorious Santa Ana winds topping 75 mph carried flying embers on an erratic path, sometimes picking off just a house here and there on otherwise untouched Orange County streets of big, expensive homes and manicured lawns. The destruction was near total in other areas: Some 500 mobile homes in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley were transformed into a smoking wasteland.
“I can’t even read the street names because the street signs are melting,” Los Angeles Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said at Oakridge Mobile Home Park.
Tens of thousands of residents have evacuated their homes in the Valley, Santa Barbara County and along the Orange-Riverside county line. For millions of others, major freeways were shut down and the prospect of blackouts hung in the air like the smoke.
No deaths were reported, but the Los Angeles police chief said he feared authorities might find bodies in the devastated mobile home park, which housed many senior citizens. Crews were waiting for the ground to cool before bringing in search dogs.
The series of fires have injured at least 20 people and destroyed hundreds of homes from coastal Santa Barbara to inland Riverside County, on the other side of the heavily populated Los Angeles area.
A blaze that ravaged the Sylmar community in the hillsides above Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley grew to more than 12 square miles and was only 20 percent contained Saturday.
It sent residents fleeing in the dark Saturday morning as it torched cars, bone-dry brush and much of the mobile home park.
The 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.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles. Fire officials estimated that its peak, 10,000 people were under orders to evacuate.
Extreme fire conditions were expected to continue into this morning, with humidity at just 10 percent to 15 percent and winds gusting to 45 mph through canyons. Winds, however, could reverse direction and dip to 5-mph breezes this afternoon.
“We still have another 15 hours of red flag conditions,” Robert Balfour, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego, warned fire officials at a briefing Saturday night.
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.
Lucretia Romero said she saw smoke above the hills beyond the front door and then, within an hour, saw that a canyon across from her home was red with flame.
“They would drop water, the water would squash the flames and then two minutes later the flames would come back,” she said. Firefighters soon banged on the door and gave them 10 minutes to evacuate.
At an evacuation center, Romero, 65, wore a string of pearls and clutched the purse and jacket she managed to take.
Police Chief William Bratton said cars were found in the debris at the park, raising concerns that bodies might be found.
The Santa Anas – dry winds that typically blow through Southern California between October and February – tossed embers ahead of flames, jumping two interstate highways and sparking new flare-ups. Walls of flame raced up ridge lines covered in sun-baked brush and surrounded high-power transmission line towers.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said power lines were down in places, and he asked residents to conserve power to help avoid possible blackouts.
Shortly after midnight, fire burned to the edge of the Olive View-UCLA Medical Center campus, knocking out power and forcing officials to evacuate two dozen critical patients.
The shifting winds caused the fire to move uphill toward the San Gabriel Mountains, downhill toward homes and sometimes skip across canyons. It also jumped across Interstates 5 and 210, forcing the California Highway Patrol to shut down portions of both freeways and some connecting roads for parts of the day.
And more than 50 homes, some of them apparently mansions, were damaged or destroyed in a fire in Orange and Riverside counties, officials said. More than 3 square miles were charred, with more than 12,000 people ordered to evacuate in Anaheim alone.
The flames erupted near a highway and quickly spread. Fierce, erratic winds pushed it into a subdivision where 5,000-square-foot homes are the norm. Several apartments in a large complex in Anaheim Hills also burned.
Devin Nathanson, 27, had put down a deposit on an apartment in Anaheim Hills and planned to move in Saturday. Instead, he watched from the road as it burned to the ground. “At least none of my stuff was inside yet,” he said.
Palm trees lining the entrance to the complex were ablaze, and two firefighters manned hoses at the swimming pool and sprayed water on the leasing center. The roof caved in with a loud bang.
A dozen buildings burned in the Riverside County town of Corona. Two city firefighters were slightly injured when the fast-moving flames swept over their fire engine, said Christy Romero, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Authority.
Winds began to decrease in the afternoon and were expected to drop further overnight, but humidity was expected to remain low.
In Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles, more than 180 homes burned to the ground Thursday in the wealthy, star-studded community of Montecito.
Hundreds of firefighters continued to battle the blaze in the enclave, said Santa Barbara city fire spokesman John Ahlman.
Several multimillion-dollar homes and a small Christian college were damaged in Montecito, a town of 14,000. More than 5,400 homes were evacuated.
The cause of that fire is under investigation. At least 13 people were injured.