Santa Ana winds gusting up to 90 m.p.h. ripped paths of destruction through Southern California early Wednesday--blasting out windows, felling trees, toppling trucks and planes and battering homes.
Authorities blamed the winds for the death of a man who stepped on a downed power line in Azusa and were investigating whether the gusty conditions contributed to the deaths of three others, who were crushed in a chain-reaction accident involving a tractor-trailer rig on the Foothill Freeway.
Transmitter Knocked Out
Almost half a million customers lost electrical power for up to 12 hours, including about 100,000 customers in Orange County. And television station KCET (Channel 28) was off the air for about 90 minutes after its transmitter atop Mt. Wilson was knocked out.
The winds are expected to abate today--there's even a slight chance of some showers tonight to briefly relieve the extremely dry conditions associated with the winds. Relative humidity dipped to an arid 4% Wednesday after reaching only as high as 16%.
But forecasters said the Santa Anas should be back again in full force on Friday.
The strongest winds Wednesday were recorded in Orange County, where the Sheriff's Department clocked a gust between 90 and 100 m.p.h. at 4 a.m. in Newport Harbor, where several small boats tore loose from their moorings and two of them sank. A 70-foot wooden dock was also lost at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club.
Sustained gusts of 50 m.p.h. were recorded at Orange County's John Wayne Airport, where five small planes were damaged. A CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter was blown over at the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro.
Elsewhere, 15 light planes were overturned by the winds at Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport and two light aircraft were torn from their moorings at Van Nuys Airport.
The gusts were so strong in the Azusa-Glendora area Wednesday morning that the California Highway Patrol closed eight miles of the Foothill Freeway to all traffic at 4:30 a.m., after at least three big trucks were blown over.
In the fatal Foothill Freeway accident, three Sylmar men were killed after they got out of two vehicles to retrieve empty sandbags that had fallen from a pickup truck. Officials identified the victims, who were part of an early morning convoy of workers traveling to a Canyon Country construction site, as Juan Martinez, 47, Rudy Calsada, 46, and Anacleto Hidalgo Hernandez, 26.
Rig Veers Onto Shoulder
Authorities said Martinez, who was driving the pickup, pulled to the shoulder of the transition road linking the westbound Foothill and the northbound Golden State freeways along with Hernandez, who was driving a car.
The three men were standing between the vehicles when a tractor-trailer rig driven by David A. Condon, 20, of Rancho Cucamonga, came around a bend and veered onto the shoulder, hitting the car and pushing it into the rear of the pickup, crushing the victims.
"We are looking into the possibility of it being wind-related," CHP Officer Ralph Elvira said. "That is based on the (tractor-trailer) driver's statement that a gust of wind forced him to veer onto the shoulder."
Amtrak said downed trees in the San Diego area blocked the rails and disrupted signals on the Los Angeles-San Diego line, delaying traffic on the route for up to 1 1/2 hours.
Wind-whipped blazes were ignited throughout the Southland. In Villa Park, firefighters fought a fast-moving blaze that broke out at 9:30 a.m., heavily damaging rooftops of two homes and causing light to moderate damage to roofs of five others nearby. Seventy-five firefighters from six surrounding cities rushed to the blaze to prevent it from spreading to other shake-shingle rooftops in the neighborhood.
Winds also hampered firefighting efforts in Huntington Beach, where a downed power line sparked a house blaze at 11:30 a.m. that inflicted an estimated $210,000 in damage before it could be contained half an hour later.
The fire, in the 18000 block of Gregory Lane, started on the roof and engulfed the rest of the home. Strong winds continued to rekindle the flames, making it difficult for firefighters to completely extinguish them, said Martha Werth, spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Department.
The fatality in Azusa occurred after another fire was started by a downed power line on the front lawn of a home on Orangecrest Avenue in the Azusa area about 2:15 a.m. Friends said a neighbor, Julio Mendoza, 39, ran over to help extinguish the blaze. He died at the scene when he came in contact with the power line.
Wire Whipped by Wind
"I could see the wire, jumping about in the wind, and then I saw Mr. Mendoza, lying there on the ground, on top of it," said a resident of the home that burned, who asked that his name not be used.
"I guess he was trying to put out the fire with a hose" when he came in contact with the power line, the man said. "He was just trying to help."