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Brush Fires Rage in 4 Counties

A day of 100-plus temperatures stokes blazes that char thousands of acres.

October 22, 2003|Louis Sahagun, Kristina Sauerwein and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

Four fast-moving brush fires stoked by temperatures in the 100s destroyed at least seven structures and charred thousands of acres, from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains to the sere training grounds of Camp Pendleton in San Diego County on Tuesday.

Firefighters in four counties braved the intense heat to battle blazes in Verdugo Hills north of Burbank, the San Gabriel foothills just north of Fontana, the Reche Canyon Pass south of Loma Linda and portions of the Santa Margarita Mountains and Camp Pendleton.

The smallest but most damaging fire raged in Reche Canyon, just south of Loma Linda, where several small flare-ups covered more than 850 acres and spread over a mountainside dotted with large Tudor-style estate homes and horse ranches. Officials said the fire apparently had been deliberately set.

At least three houses and several more outbuildings were consumed by flames before nightfall as hot, dry Santa Ana winds gusted through the canyon pass. As helicopters dumped water on burning eucalyptus and cedar trees, flames periodically exploded and diminished.

"Oh my God! My neighbor's home is going up in flames," said resident Denise MacDonald. "It's only 300 feet away."

MacDonald called the burning home the Purdom Ranch, which she said is home to about 60 to 100 horses. "I can see the horses. They're pacing nervously," MacDonald said, choking on smoke.

From her vantage point early Tuesday evening, she could see the homes of two other neighbors in flames across the street, and the backyard of another property in flames. "This is very spooky," she said.

Frightened horses in the hills could be heard neighing over the thwack of helicopter blades as residents gathered belongings to evacuate.

"I don't know what to pack first," said Michelle Raymondo, 31, who stood in her driveway. "I don't even know what to think right now."

Chewing her nails nervously, Raymondo was surrounded by relatives stuffing cars with clothes and photographs. Her son, Joshua Raymond, 10, stood awe-struck as the fire crept closer. To no one in particular the boy muttered: "I'm really scared."

By nightfall, temperatures had dropped and winds subsided, keeping the fire from spreading, but firefighters said the blaze might pick up again today. At its height, the fire threatened as many as 100 homes. Resident Doyal Teel, 56, was hosing down his cabin about 5 p.m. when he heard a loud whooshing sound from above. Seconds later, he was staggering in a pool of slippery red fire retardant, dropped from a tanker plane.

"It felt like I got hit by a wave in the ocean," said Teel, whose hair was encrusted with the fire-engine-red goop. "I'm not complaining."

In Fontana, wind-stoked flames raced through more than 2,000 acres of hillside and national forest land in San Bernardino County, just south of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Officials reported no injuries or damaged homes there, but they said the fire was moving quickly uphill, and continued to do so late Tuesday evening.

"The good news is that the fire is moving away from the homes," said California Department of Forestry and Fire spokesman Bill Peters. "Firefighters are going to be working through the night on this one."

The fire, the first major blaze to scorch the area in 15 years, began about 2:20 p.m. and its cause remained unknown. More than 300 firefighters from state, county and local agencies worked to extinguish flames.

In the Verdugo Hills, fire authorities were suspicious about the origin of a blaze that scorched as much as 100 acres. "It does not look like a natural fire," said Lt. Chief David Starr of the Burbank Fire Department. "It appears to be man-made."

The fire was more than three-quarters contained by 6:30 p.m. and, half an hour later, authorities began releasing some of the 100 firefighters who had responded.

The fire began around 1:45 p.m. Tuesday, according to Burbank Fire Department Capt. Ron Bell. "It was blowing up the hill very quickly," Bell said, adding that officials suspected it had started at a water catch-basin on the north side of County Club Road and had moved north up the hill. A 3,000-square-foot police training center was the only structure thought to be in the direct path of the flames.

The area is a popular jumping-off point for hikers and mountain bikers. Firefighters ordered evacuations from the area's trails and homes. Jeff Goldman, 55, who has lived in the area for 19 years, was forced to leave after he walked out of his house at 4 p.m. to find flames within half a mile of his house.

Goldman sat on a curb near the command center on Olive Street, sweating profusely. Asked whether he was nervous about the fate of his house or was confident that it would survive, Goldman snorted and responded, "Both of those."

At Camp Pendleton, a fire burned more than 500 acres in a remote part of the sprawling Marine Corps base, but no structures were damaged and no evacuation orders were issued.

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