A four-alarm fire gutted much of a three-story apartment building in West Covina on Saturday and left as many as 500 people homeless, police said.
No injuries were reported.
The fire started in a car at about 4 p.m. and burned its way up a pine tree and onto the roof of a 150-unit apartment building. According to one account, a man working on his car's carburetor accidentally sparked the blaze, which burned for several hours and could be seen throughout the San Gabriel Valley. Police investigators said they are also looking at arson as a possible cause.
The fire destroyed more than three-quarters of the units in The Palms apartment building at 217 N. Sunset Ave., police said.
The Red Cross set up an emergency shelter for the evacuees at a nearby elementary school. By 9:30 p.m., about 75 people were crowded around television sets or entertaining their children at cafeteria tables.
Several building residents said the fire did not appear severe at the outset. One woman thought the smoke was coming from a nearby barbecue. Many residents said they did not take any belongings with them when they fled or were ushered out by firefighters.
"What we're wearing is all we got out," said 35-year-old Betty Shabazz, who escaped with her husband.
The blaze proved severe--the biggest, in fact, that some West Covina fire and police officials said they could remember in the city's history.
"We've had single residential structure fires before, but nothing of this magnitude," said West Covina Police Officer Bob Tolich. "We've never had an apartment complex go up like this before."
Valerie Williams, 23, who was waiting at the Red Cross shelter with her baby, said: "It was blazing. And the more they wet it, the more it kept blazing."
Officials reported that the 35 firefighters on the scene had evacuated all occupants within about an hour after the blaze started.
Estimates differed over how many people were left homeless. Police put the tally at 400 to 500 people. Tom Manheim, city community information coordinator, said the building's owner reported that only 175 people occupied the complex. The owner could not be reached for comment.
Tolich said about 120 units were destroyed by fire, with others suffering smoke and water damage.
Police said they will open up the building to its occupants today and planned to have officers at the site through the night to prevent looting.
Robert Crompton, Red Cross disaster coordinator for the East San Gabriel Valley, said officials are prepared to provide food, shelter and medical care for the evacuees "until there's no more need. We're here for the duration."