LAGUNA BEACH — A runaway firestorm plunged through picturesque Laguna Canyon and lurched toward the downtown village center Wednesday, destroying more than 300 homes and seaside mobile homes in its path.
Even as residents fled their homes and jammed Coast Highway heading south, firefighters from across the county swarmed through foothills, heavy brush and pricey neighborhoods to fight a headstrong blaze moving in several directions at once.
By 10 p.m. one leg of the Laguna fire had snaked northeast over the San Joaquin Hills seemed to take dead aim at the Turtle Rock section of Irvine the university campus. Many students and nearby residents fled to a shelter at Woodbridge High School.
Throughout the night, ridgelines across southern Orange County glistened, more and more evacuation centers welcomed the wayward, and wary residents remained glued to their television sets. As the Laguna fire shot north toward Irvine and Corona del Mar and south into more neighborhoods, another fire raged in the foothills near Ortega Highway.
"The city is going up in flames," said Laguna Mayor Lida Lenney, as she packed up to evacuate her home and bemoaned a year that began with devastating rainstorms in the city. "God, what next?"
The fire was the most dramatic and destructive of the fires that swept across Southern California from Ventura to San Diego Wednesday, charring more than 65,000 acres.
Authorities said the Laguna fire was deliberately set, and Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates called it the worst fire in the county's history. The flames continued to burn late Wednesday, leapfrogging through the canyons above the city of 23,000 and at one point threatening City Hall.
By 10:30p.m., authorities said the fire was 30 percent contained, but they expected to lose ground when the winds kick up this morning.
Miraculously, there were no deaths reported in the fires across the Southland, but at least 14 firefighters and nine other people were injured. Damage was expected to exceed hundreds of millions of dollars.
Among the developments Wednesday:
* Gov. Pete Wilson declared a state of emergency throughout the fire-stricken region, paving the way for federal and state assistance to fire victims.
* In North Orange County, a separate fire damaged 29 homes in Villa Park and Orange, destroying two of them and burning 750 acres.
* Flames also flared along the Ortega Highway late Wednesday, scorching 5,000 acres and forcing 75 families to evacuate near the Cleveland National Forest.
Orange County's wind-driven fire storms erupted first in the county's northern hills, then in Laguna Beach within about 12 hours of each other. But the blaze in Laguna Beach was by far the most devastating.
Late Wednesday, the governor's Office of Emergency Services declared the Laguna Beach fire the top priority in the state, according to Orange County Fire Capt. Dan Young. About 1,000 more firefighters were headed to the area today.
"It looked like 50 miles of fire from the air, all the way from Cleveland National Forest to the Pacific Ocean," Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Harriett M. Wieder said after completing a helicopter tour late Wednesday.
The fire broke out on the north end of Laguna Canyon Road just before noon, destroying 313 homes, including 60 in Emerald Bay, three in Irvine Cove, 100 in the El Morro Beach Mobile Home Park, and 150 in Mystic Hills, officials said. An estimated 1,000 firefighters from across Southern California worked the fire lines, with help from 150 sheriff's deputies and 22 Laguna Beach police officers.
The fast-moving blaze showed a terrible egalitarianism, gutting trailer homes and multi-million dollar residences alike, fire officials said.
In Emerald Canyon, the flames destroyed dozens of homes, many of them multimillion-dollar estates. Children were evacuated from three schools and Coast Highway was closed as firefighters battled stiff afternoon winds in a futile effort to halt the 10-mile swath of flames. California Highway Patrol officers and local police were manning hoses because there were too few firefighters for the job.
In downtown Laguna, residents crowded onto rooftops and lined Pacific Coast Highway to gaze up at the flames snaking down the hills toward the ocean. Traffic came to a virtual halt. Overhead, helicopters dipped 150-gallon buckets in the Pacific, then headed back over the town to drop the contents on the homes ablaze in the canyons.
Deer and rabbits fleeing from the fire ran through the streets, and boulders jarred loose by burned vegetation rolled down the canyons toward firefighters struggling to contain the blaze. Trees and bushes caught fire and exploded.
John Hamil, a veterinarian whose animal hospital is on Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach, ignored fire fighters' warnings to abandon his property and was hosing down shrubbery outside when flames roared down the hill.