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47 Houses Lost in Fire at San Diego : Damage Estimated at $5.3 Million as Hundreds Flee; Other Areas Hit

July 01, 1985|T.W. MCGARRY and TED THACKREY JR. | Times Staff Writers

At least 47 homes were destroyed and four others heavily damaged Sunday as fire burst out of a steep, brush-filled canyon in the Normal Heights district eight miles northeast of downtown San Diego, forcing hundreds of residents to flee.

Damage was officially estimated by the county Emergency Management Office at more than $5.3 million, but was expected to climb. By 8:30 p.m., fire officials said the blaze was 95% contained with full control not expected before dawn.

San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock toured the 290-acre area of the blaze, called it the most destructive in the city's history, and asked Gov. George Deukmejian to declare Normal Heights a disaster area.

Winds Pose Problem

Firefighters fought erratic winds, low humidity and difficult terrain to contain the flames in temperatures that soared over the 100-degree mark in the afternoon.

There were no deaths and injuries were said to be minor. Several firefighters and residents who stayed and tried to fight the flames were treated at the scene for heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation, first- and second-degree burns and eye irritation.

Ambulances took at least five people to hospitals. These included two infants suffering from smoke inhalation, authorities said.

The toll of misery and destruction mounted as night fell, reducing the winds that had fueled the flames but adding confusion and fear to the plight of those who had been driven from their homes.

Many of the evacuees were elderly, and were in house coats and slippers as they fled from the houses where some of them had lived for nearly half a century. A number of the evacuees were taken in by friends outside the threatened area; others went to an emergency shelter set up by the Red Cross.

By late evening, police and sheriff's helicopters were still in the area, hovering amid hot embers, wind and smoke, using loudspeakers to warn residents below of the spreading fire--and asking them not to add to the problem by trying to battle the flames themselves.

"One of our biggest difficulties," said San Diego Fire Department spokesman Larry Stewart, "is homeowners who try to save their houses with a garden hose. It isn't effective against a fire like this, and it lowers water pressure at just the moment when that pressure is vitally needed."

The San Diego blaze was the most damaging--but by no means the largest--of several fires that spread across Southern California, fanned by hot, dry winds.

In the Palm Springs area, a 10,000-acre forest fire, burning out of control for the fourth day, closed to within a mile of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway as firefighters set backfires from the parking lot of the popular tourist attraction.

Two fires lanced through the hills near the Ventura-Los Angeles County line, burning 600 acres in the Lake Sherwood area, two miles from Westlake Village.

And four small fires broke out in the West Hollywood area, where fire officials said they suspected that an arsonist may have been at work.

The fire that devastated the handsome, older San Diego neighborhood of Normal Heights began about noon in the bottom of a canyon near West Mountain View Heights at the intersection of Interstates 8 and 805. Within minutes, witnesses said, the wind had pushed it over the rim of the hill--and into nearby homes.

Fire officials Sunday night were still trying to determine the cause of the blaze. By the time the first fire trucks arrived at 11:54 a.m., the flames had already leaped out the canyon and engulfed several homes.

Authorities said the nature of Normal Heights itself--a community of homes on the plateau overlooking Mission Valley, southeast of the crossing of the I-8 and I-805 freeways--made the blaze more difficult to fight.

The plateau is broken by several smaller canyon fingers with steep walls that "acted like a chimney" for the flames, one official said. The homes, many of which are 40 years old and have combustible shake shingle roofs, are particularly vulnerable to fire, officials said.

For a time in early afternoon, flames were seen to be jumping from canyon to canyon, and even on the rare occasions when the wind died, there was no respite. The fire was hot enough to generate its own wind.

"It feeds on itself," said San Diego Fire Capt. Larry Carlson. "As the fire goes up a hill, the steeper the hill is, the faster it can go.

"The faster it goes, the more heat it generates and it dries the brush in front of it. Soon the area in front is preheated and the fire explodes up the hill--generating its own wind that swirls and sucks it up the hill."

By early afternoon, more than 500 firefighters were on the line, some from as far away as Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Two air tankers from Ventura County made six passes over the fire, dumping thousands of gallons of a chemical fire retardant in the canyons.

But it continued to burn in isolated canyons.

Guard Against Looting

More than 150 policemen were called out to cordon off the area and prevent looting, but there were no reports of vandalism in the area.

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