November 17, 2008 in Nation/World

California firefighters get break from winds

Flames have blackened more than 34 square miles in three days
By JUSTIN PRITCHARD Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

A search and rescue worker and her dog walk through the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles on Sunday.
(Full-size photo)

More evacuations

Fire officials on Sunday morning ordered 1,400 more residents to evacuate, in addition to 26,500 who had already been told to leave.

DIAMOND BAR, Calif. – More residents of Southern California were urged to leave their homes Sunday despite calming winds that allowed a major aerial attack on wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes and blanketed the region in smoke.

Fires burned in Los Angeles County, to the east in Riverside and Orange counties, and to the northwest in Santa Barbara County. More than 800 houses, mobile homes and apartments were destroyed by fires that have burned more than 34 square miles since breaking out Thursday.

No deaths have been reported, but police brought in trained dogs Sunday morning to search the rubble of a mobile home park where nearly 500 homes were destroyed. They didn’t find any bodies after searching about a third of the homes.

“This has been a very tough few days for the people of Southern California,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said after touring damage.

The smell of smoke pervaded metropolitan Los Angeles. Downtown skyscrapers were silhouettes in an opaque sky, and concerns about air quality forced organizers to cancel a marathon in suburban Pasadena where 8,000 runners had planned to participate.

Fierce Santa Ana winds that fanned the fires on Saturday weakened Sunday morning, allowing firefighters to set backfires to prevent flames from advancing to hillside neighborhoods. Air tankers swooped low over suburbs, red fire retardant billowing from their bellies as they painted defensive lines between brushlands and homes. Big helicopters shuttled back and forth on water drops.

The most threatening blaze had scorched more than 16 square miles in Orange and Riverside counties after erupting Saturday and shooting through subdivisions entwined with wilderness parklands. By midday Sunday, multimillion-dollar homes were being threatened in Diamond Bar in Los Angeles County as the out-of-control fire pushed northward.

Fire officials on Sunday morning ordered 1,400 more residents to evacuate, in addition to 26,500 who had already been told to leave.

Retired aerospace engineer Joe Gomez, who has lived in his palm-tree-lined Diamond Bar neighborhood for 45 years, stayed put despite being under a mandatory evacuation.

“I’m trying to use some logic here,” said Gomez, 72, trying to gauge the direction of the wind and flames. “I don’t think it’s going to come down this way.”

Gomez packed a bag with important documents in case he decided to leave. His wife, a stroke victim, left with their daughters earlier in the day.

“My daughters were really thinking I was nuts. They said, ‘These are mandatory evacuations.’ I said, ‘You guys just relax.’ ”

In the early morning, winds pushed flames dangerously close to a church and adjacent mobile home park in the Olinda Village area north of Yorba Linda, but firefighters were able to beat it back. Only one mobile home was lost.

Billy Bagsby, an inmate firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the flames suddenly shifted direction around 2 a.m.

“It was like the church was protecting itself,” Bagsby said.

On Saturday, the fire burned 119 homes in the communities of Corona, Yorba Linda and Anaheim. In addition, 50 units of an apartment complex burned, Orange County fire spokeswoman Angela Garbiso said.

Capt. Guy Melker of the Los Angeles County Fire Department stood on a balcony of a multimillion-dollar home in Diamond Bar, looking down into a canyon with flames on the far side.

“It’s an interesting chess game right now,” Melker said. “Sometimes Mother Nature puts us in check, and our job is to put her in checkmate.”

As Melker spoke, a small spotter plane slipped low across a ridge, followed by a big air tanker that dropped its load along a ridge.

In the Orange County city of Brea, fire destroyed the main building of a high school.

About 50 miles to the northwest, a fire that burned more than 14 square miles in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley was 30 percent contained after devastating a luxury mobile home park early Saturday. The fire was largely burning in a rugged wilderness canyon.

Authorities said Sunday that 484 of the Oakridge Mobile Home Park’s 608 units were lost. The Sylmar fire also destroyed nine single-family homes and 11 commercial buildings.

The park was home to many elderly residents, and though no fatalities were reported and no one was reported missing, investigators were searching the site using trained dogs.

“To this point no human remains have been found,” said Deputy Police Chief Michael Moore.

Fire officials estimated that at the peak of the Sylmar fire, 10,000 people were ordered to evacuate. However, many evacuation orders were lifted Saturday night, Fire Department spokesman Ron Haralson said. Five looting arrests were reported.

About 90 miles northwest of Sylmar, a 3-square-mile fire that began in the upscale Santa Barbara County community of Montecito on Thursday night was 75 percent contained by Sunday morning after injuring at least 25 people.

County spokesman William Boyer said 130 homes burned in the city of Santa Barbara and 80 burned in Montecito.

© Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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