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Losses Climb as Fires Still Burn : 554 Homes Hit; Crews Contain Some Blazes : Inferno: Weary firefighters still battling in Altadena, Malibu. President declares disaster area. Injuries climb to 84.


Devastating brush fires continued to scorch hillsides in Laguna Beach, Altadena and other dry corners of the Southland on Thursday, spreading destruction to new regions even as firefighters managed to partially contain the worst of the infernos.

Total losses climbed to at least 554 homes destroyed or damaged and more than 137,000 acres burned.

Weary firefighters were winning the battle to save hundreds of threatened homes in some areas, but late afternoon sea breezes droves flames into upscale neighborhoods in Ventura County, where more homes burned and residents scrambled to evacuate.

Weather forecasters raised fears of new outbreaks, predicting that dry Santa Ana winds will grow stronger today.

No deaths were reported in any of the 14 major fires, but the injury total climbed to 84, including 67 firefighters. President Clinton declared the region a federal disaster area to help speed reconstruction efforts.

Meanwhile, relief agencies continued to organize shelters for an estimated 25,000 people displaced by the fires, and law enforcement agencies pressed their investigations into fires believed set by arsonists.

In major developments:

* More than 1,000 firefighters working overnight managed to contain the fire that had raged through the seaside artists' colony of Laguna Beach on Wednesday, destroying 310 homes and causing the evacuation of the city's 23,000 residents and some in nearby areas. Tearful families began returning to damaged homes and smoldering lots, and Marines began picking through rubble to look for possible fatalities. Beloved tourist spots--such as the Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Art Museum and Sawdust Festival grounds, where the yearly Pageant of the Masters is staged--were spared.

* Near Thousand Oaks, a two-day-old fire that had consumed 33,000 acres of brush and destroyed 33 homes started racing eastward through Ventura County's Carlisle Canyon, threatening the gated community of Lake Sherwood Ranch and setting two homes ablaze on Stafford Road. Residents were being evacuated from Lake Sherwood Ranch and from some of the western subdivisions of Westlake Village.

* The fire that destroyed 115 homes in Altadena and Sierra Madre, forcing the evacuation of more than 2,000 residents, continued to burn out of control after blackening more than 5,000 acres, but officials said the blaze posed no immediate threat to more homes.

* In Riverside County, two fires that had burned 6,000 acres of brushland were declared fully contained, and a third blaze was brought largely under control.

* Authorities glanced nervously at forecasts calling for the return of warm, 20- to 40-m.p.h. winds.

"If the fires aren't fully contained by Friday night, the embers will begin blowing again," warned WeatherData Inc. forecaster James McCutcheon. Although the winds were expected to be less severe than those that drove walls of flames through many areas Wednesday, gusts once again could reach 60 and 70 m.p.h. below some canyons, McCutcheon said.

Today's temperatures are expected to peak in the upper 70s to the upper 80s, somewhat cooler than Wednesday.

Arson investigators, who held virtually no clues to who might have set the most costly fire in Laguna Beach, said it might be weeks before they can pinpoint a cause. Gov. Pete Wilson, who toured the charred community Thursday with local elected officials, offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of "the sick animal who did this thing."

Orange County

Government officials gathered Thursday morning at Laguna's Main Beach to watch fire helicopters lift off from the sand into smoke-filled skies, battling the region's most serious blaze in a scene reminiscent of the movie "Apocalypse Now." Absent was Laguna Beach City Councilman Bob Gentry, whose home and a rental property had been destroyed. City Manager Kenneth Frank, who also lost a home on Skyline Drive, struggled to concentrate his attention on getting officials onto tour buses.

"This is unbelievable," Councilwoman Ann Christoph said.

Firefighters had reached a turning point in battling the fire about midnight Wednesday, thanks largely to a cool marine layer that brought moisture and still air to the picturesque seaside enclave, an Orange County Fire Department spokesman said.

By the time the fire was contained Thursday afternoon, it had consumed more than 8,000 acres, mostly at Emerald Bay at the coastal north end of town and along Laguna Canyon Road in the rugged hillsides overlooking town. Laguna Beach police placed the damage toll at 330 homes lost or partially destroyed--from $10-million estates to modest structures at the El Morro mobile home park.

The wind-whipped flames came within feet of Laguna Beach City Hall, but it was spared, along with virtually all of the downtown area shops and galleries.

With about 1,400 firefighters still working the fire, another 1,000 were en route to try to fully extinguish the blaze, authorities said.

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