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California and the West

Fires Continue to Scorch Southland

Damage: Riverside County blaze torches 100 structures as lightning, heat fan flames in 4 counties. Cooler weather is forecast by the weekend.

September 02, 1998|TOM GORMAN and GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Ten stubborn wildfires, most of them sparked by lightning strikes and aided by a fifth consecutive day of blistering heat, continued to burn Tuesday in Southern California, including one in Riverside that has destroyed or damaged about 100 structures, about half of them residences.

Thousands of firefighters endured temperatures of over 100 degrees in some areas as they battled three blazes in Riverside County, three in Orange County and four minor fires in San Diego and San Bernardino counties.

The heat wave is expected to continue through the rest of the week, although temperatures will dip slightly during the next few days, said Jeff House of WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts for The Times. Downtown Los Angeles reached 104 Tuesday, well below the record of 110, but almost 20 degrees above the normal high for the date. Temperatures throughout Southern California should return to normal by the weekend.

In Riverside County, the most destructive fire was in Juniper Flats, about 10 miles east of Hemet, where a 6,000-acre blaze was about 75% contained. Residents were allowed to briefly return to their houses to assess the damage. But an evacuation order, issued Monday night when the fire started, was still in effect.

The fire, apparently sparked by lightning, ripped through a hilly, rocky, sparsely populated area with scattered horse ranches, mobile homes and upscale ranch houses.

Property owners Tuesday both cursed and marveled at the capriciousness of the fire that swept along Juniper Flats Road, below the western slopes of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Among those attempting to rationalize the tragedy were Dr. Glenn Nakadate and his wife, Sharon, who live in Westminster and learned by watching the television news Monday night that their historic getaway home was ablaze.

The rock and stone structure, they said, was built in 1935 and is an exact replica of a French country stone house.

On Tuesday, they discovered that the house--used as a bed and breakfast inn--was partly destroyed.

But fortuitously, a fire crew reached the house and extinguished the blaze just as flames were licking through a heavy wooden door that protected the main part of the house. Lost was the original kitchen and an add-on master bedroom suite.

"I saw our house burning, but we're fortunate because it's our secondary home," said Sharon Nakadate, tiptoeing carefully through the charred rubble of the bedroom. "I was really worrying about our neighbors, though."

Most of the original interior furnishings were spared, and she said they would rebuild what was destroyed. The house recently was listed for sale for $500,000.

In Orange County, firefighters continued to battle three brush fires, including one in Santiago Canyon that blackened 5,000 acres and was continuing its march across the hills.

As about 350 firefighters fought that blaze, residents in the Foothill Ranch and Portola Hills communities in the canyon prepared to evacuate.

Car trunks were packed with clothes, framed pictures and diapers as residents peered at the glowing red horizon.

"Everybody is packing," said Evelyne Peurifoy. "The winds are picking up and that's not good. . . . It's a very anxious day. I've never had a firefighter in my backyard before."

In a remote area of Santiago Canyon between Jackson Ranch and Gertner Ranch, some residents voluntarily evacuated, taking their horses with them. As of Tuesday afternoon, the fire was about a quarter-mile from homes, but firefighters feared "a possible return of thunderstorm activity," said Scott Brown, a spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority. "The erratic wind from the storm [Monday night] is what really contributed to the fires, and we had a lot of lightning."

A fire in Carbon Canyon burned nearly 900 acres but was contained late Tuesday. A third blaze in Holy Jim Canyon in the Cleveland National Forest was also contained after it scorched about 30 acres, firefighters said.

The Sanitago Canyon and Carbon Canyon fires were started by lightning Monday night, but the cause of the Holy Jim Canyon fire remained under investigation. No one was reported injured in any of the fires, although three firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion.

Firefighter Jon Turner, working in Santiago Canyon, was weary after a 13-hour shift with no end in sight.

"We started with the Holy Jim Fire about 11:30 a.m. [Monday] and worked until midnight," said Turner, 23. "Then they assigned us here. We hardly got any sleep last night."

Firefighters weighted down in heavy suits faced the threat of dehydration, said Dennis Shell, a Fire Authority spokesman.

Two fires in San Diego County had scorched more than 7,000 acres, nearly 2,300 near Camp Pendleton and about 4,800 acres on the Barona Indian Reservation. Both fires were about 50% contained late Tuesday. One firefighter was injured battling the Barona blaze.

In Riverside County, two firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion and two for eye problems.

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