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Christmas Tree Fueled Blaze That Injured 5


Three Wilmington children were in critical condition and two adults were listed as stable Wednesday after their Christmas tree caught fire, fueling a blaze that trapped all but one of them in their second-floor apartment.

The fire started in the two-bedroom apartment at 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, rapidly engulfing the living room and blocking the front doorway, said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey.

The tree was close to the escape route and hampered the victims' escape, Humphrey said.

Fire investigators were trying to determine whether the tree was ignited by a wall heater or a short-circuited Christmas light, he said.

The Christmas tree blaze was not the only one in the Los Angeles area this holiday season. On Saturday, a 16-month-old Compton girl was killed when her older sister set fire to the family tree while playing with a cigarette lighter. On Wednesday, a Montecito Heights family's tree caught fire and charred their first-floor apartment. No one was seriously injured.

In the Wilmington blaze, Julian Molina, 23, awoke to find flames coming from a gas heater in a wall separating the master bedroom from the living room, officials said. He managed to get out of the apartment to seek help, firefighters said.

Neighbors said Molina, who lived in the apartment with Dora Castro, 24, and three young children, later tried to go back inside. But residents from nearby apartments stopped him because the flames had become too intense.

"The man, he was screaming and crying," said Maricela Rodriguez, 18, who lives next door to the apartment building. "He was trying to go in, but (neighborhood) youths were holding him back."

Until firefighters arrived, Rodriguez said, neighbors tried unsuccessfully to douse the blaze with garden hoses.

Firefighters rescued Castro and the three children--an 8-month-old baby and two 3-year-olds. Molina and Castro were taken to Bay Harbor Hospital in Harbor City. Molina has first- and second-degree burns on his hands, back and arms and Castro has second- and third-degree burns on her face and arms.

The baby, identified only as Brian, was being treated for second- and third-degree burns and smoke inhalation at Los Angeles County-UCLA Medical Center. A 3-year-old girl, Genesis Vallejas, was at Kaiser Foundation Hospital-Los Angeles. George Vallejas, 3, was at the burn center in San Bernardino Community Hospital.

The blaze destroyed the apartment's living room, leaving only a blackened six-foot section of the Christmas tree and a charred couch. Neighbors said the family had planned to spend Christmas at home with a few relatives.

They had yet to place gifts under the tree.

"They were a happy family and really looking toward a good Christmas," said Jubentino Padilla, 26, a neighbor.

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