LOS ANGELES – Two huge wildfires driven by strong Santa Ana winds burned into neighborhoods near Los Angeles on Monday, forcing frantic evacuations on smoke- and traffic-choked highways, destroying homes and causing at least two deaths.
More than 1,000 firefighters and nine water-dropping aircraft battled the 4,700-acre Marek Fire at the northeast end of the San Fernando Valley and the 5,000-acre Sesnon Fire at the west end.
One fatality was a man who appeared to have been a transient living in a makeshift shelter, authorities said. A motorist died around midday Monday in a head-on crash on a freeway entrance ramp as traffic tried to turn around to escape flames.
Around sunset, residents were warned to stay on alert during the night and winds more than 60 mph were forecast. Winds blew up to 45 mph with gusts reaching 70 mph at midday.
“This fire has the real potential of moving from where it is now … as far as Pacific Coast (Highway),” said Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman.
Residents downwind were warned to remain alert into the night. “It can go from here to the ocean in a matter of two to three hours,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Authorities confirmed more than three dozen mobile homes burned at the Marek Fire, and TV news helicopter crews counted about 10 homes destroyed by the Sesnon Fire. More than 15 square miles were charred by both blazes combined.
“It is a blowtorch we can’t get in front of,” said Los Angeles County fire Inspector Frank Garrido.
Residents were not allowed to drive into one of Porter Ranch’s gated communities because officials wanted to keep roads clear for emergency vehicles. Instead they parked their cars, ran to their homes and carried out whatever they could carry in pillow cases, in their arms, sacks and suitcases.
In San Diego County, a wildfire that began on an explosives training range at Camp Pendleton forced the evacuation of a military housing area and 100 nearby homes in Oceanside.
Farther north, a blaze charred more than half of Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, but spared historical structures, including an immigration station that was the first stop for millions, mostly from China, in the early 1900s.