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Fierce Winds Spark Fires Across the Southland

Two people are killed, thousands lose power and four homes burn in Norco as gusts up to 100 mph lash the region. More wind is forecast.

January 07, 2003|Massie Ritsch, Bob Pool and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

Fierce winds wreaked havoc across the Southland on Monday, fanning a brush fire in Malibu that consumed more than 1,500 acres and endangered multimillion-dollar homes as a series of smaller blazes torched four houses in the Riverside County community of Norco.

Gusts of up to 100 mph left a calling card of crushed cars, closed streets and fallen tree limbs across the region -- killing a San Diego woman out walking her dog and a Riverside man in his car. Up to 300,000 customers in the Los Angeles area lost power.

By late Monday, the Malibu blaze had caused minor damage to three houses and forced evacuations of scores of residences in Encinal and Decker canyons, not far from the Ventura County line.

The blaze caused some uniquely Malibu inconveniences as well: Laker star Kobe Bryant was among those affected when the blaze interrupted a Sprite commercial he was filming. Among the houses threatened was the compound of Maharaji, the onetime "perfect master" of the Divine Light Mission.

In the scramble to snatch precious belongings, some made California-centric choices.

"I have an extra leash for Penny, and I have my bikini," said Malibu resident Robyn Lynch, who also grabbed her dog and videotapes of her daughter, who was not at home.

Asked why the bikini, Lynch replied incredulously: "This is Malibu. If it wasn't for the smoke, it would be a great day."

At the root of all the mayhem was the wind, and few neighborhoods were spared. Southern California Edison reported 200 power poles had been felled by the winds, 29 along Live Oak Avenue in Arcadia. The poles were built to withstand winds of 90 mph.

By evening, some customers were being told the electricity might not be restored for days.

The winds were strongest in the canyons below the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, from Arcadia east to Redlands, and in parts of Orange County. Santa Ana, Orange, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, La Habra and Placentia were particularly hard-hit by outages.

In Orange County, several schools closed for the day. In the city of Orange, 47 power poles collapsed like dominoes, some held up only by tangled wires.

"It looked like a major earthquake or tornado had hit," said Jane Brown, a power company spokeswoman.

A motorist who was waiting at a railroad intersection at Batavia Avenue in Orange escaped injury when he ran from his car after a slow-moving train pulled down nearly two dozen power poles, causing one to wrap around his car, drag it several feet and flip it upside down in opposing lanes.

In Tarzana, winds knocked a tree into a house, sparking a fire with electrical wires in the attic, according to firefighters at the scene Monday afternoon. No one was injured.

Fallen trees blocked Metrolink lines in Irvine for several hours in the morning. Fifty trees fell in Pasadena, and in Glendale, six palm trees burned after power poles fell on them.

In Riverside, 52-year-old Donald Long was killed when wind-blown debris hit his windshield as he was driving.

In San Diego, an unidentified woman in her late 30s was killed by a 75-foot eucalyptus tree as she walked her dog in the Old Town neighborhood. Three amateur painters underneath the tree escaped harm.

In Yorba Linda, a 91-year-old pepper tree planted by former President Richard Nixon's father was substantially damaged.

The winds, which topped 100 mph in remote Fremont Canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains between Orange and Riverside counties, were expected to last until this morning.

The Malibu fire, sparked by downed power lines, was reported about 9:30 a.m. at Trancas Canyon Road and Anacapa View Drive. It was Malibu's third fire since high winds started blowing Sunday night.

Driven by winds gusting up to 60 mph, the blaze first burned southwest toward Broad Beach Road along Pacific Coast Highway, jumping the highway at least twice. But prevailing ocean winds pushed back against the Santa Anas and turned the flames back toward the hills and canyons, fire inspector Edward Osorio said.

Late Monday night, two California Highway Patrol officers were injured when they were hit by a motorist while directing traffic at Kanan Dune Road and Pacific Coast Highway. A helicopter took them to local hospitals.

Embers flew through the air like slanting blasts of orange rainfall. At Pacific Coast Highway and Encinal Canyon Road, residents sat in their cars -- most of them BMWs, Mercedes and other luxury vehicles -- watching the fire chew through the hills above them. Others hosed down their houses or dragged furniture away from windows.

At 9:30 pm, flames came tumbling over the hill at Avenida Del Mar. In their path was a multistory home surrounded by towering eucalyptus trees. The only thing between the house and the flames were Steven Carter and his garden hose. Frantically spraying, he said: "I'm trying to save this house."

Smoke and ash were tossed in the night air on 60 mph gusts that threatened to send the blaze leapfrogging from ridge to ridge. Beyond the smoke, stars were visible over the Pacific Ocean.

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