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1,000 Are Ordered to Evacuate as Wind-Fanned Flames Sear Brush

October 24, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

A wildfire burning near Fontana and fed by 20-mph winds forced evacuations and scorched 3,500 acres Thursday, doubling its size from the day before as flames continued to burn thick underbrush in and around the San Bernardino National Forest.

With the fire rushing north in elusive bursts, authorities ordered more than 1,000 residents near Lytle Creek to vacate their homes in the early afternoon, said Robin Renteria, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in San Bernardino.

It is unknown how many homes were threatened, Renteria said Thursday evening. Several campgrounds near the fires were also in danger.

Smoky skies blanketed Southern California as firefighters also battled blazes in Riverside, Los Angeles, San Diego and Ventura counties. They blamed high temperatures, low humidity and gusts for fanning flames.

"We're not looking forward to the Santa Ana winds," which are expected to blow into the region this weekend, said Gregory Crawford, a fire prevention technician for the Forest Service. "They're not going to help the situation."

Near the Angeles National Forest, tinder-dry grass in the Lake View Terrace area of L.A. erupted in flames that quickly chewed through several dozen acres late Thursday.

No structures were threatened in the rugged area about 15 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, and firefighters had the fire under complete control in three hours. City fire spokesman Bob Collis said firefighters wasted no time calling for aid from other fire agencies when they saw how rapidly the blaze was advancing into the forest.

"At first it was five acres, and then suddenly it was 50," he said, adding that although there was little wind, the late afternoon heat coming off the hills in the area probably was a factor.

Two water-dropping helicopters aided firefighters from several agencies. The cause of the fire, reported at 4:45 p.m. in the 10200 block of Kurt Street, was under investigation.

In Ventura County, a brush fire burned out of control late Thursday near Lake Piru, but no homes or other structures were threatened. About 500 acres had been charred by 9:30 p.m.

More than 240 firefighters and ground crews, aided by water-dropping helicopters and tanker planes, tried to douse flames in the rugged canyon area.

Only 5% contained, the fire was moving north of the lake toward the Los Padres National Forest, said Joe Luna, spokesman for the county Fire Department. Although wind conditions were calm, dry vegetation and low moisture levels helped fuel the fire in the mostly rural area, he said.

Firefighters were expected to work throughout the night, hoping to gain control before winds kicked up, Luna said.

The cause of the fire, which was first reported about 12:30 p.m., was still under investigation.

Throughout the day the fire above Fontana exhibited "extreme behavior" as it zipped across steep, rugged terrain, Crawford said. "It's difficult for the firefighters."

Nevertheless, they contained 17% of the blaze near the southern edge. The fire, which began Tuesday afternoon, is expected to be extinguished by next Thursday.

The cause of the blaze is under investigation, Crawford said, "but the speculation is arson." He declined to elaborate.

Lloyd Readman has lived all his 53 years in Lytle Creek, and he knows every dirt road out of Happy Jack, a community of about 100 homes along the canyon.

He and his wife, Karen, stayed put Thursday, even after the flow of electricity and water stopped and sheriff's deputies ordered people to evacuate.

"We're not gonna up and just move," said Karen Readman. "It's not easy to say, 'I'm leaving my house to burn'.... But I'm packing, believe me. We're not going to be fools."

She said her husband, a Forest Service employee at the Lytle Creek ranger station, was outdoors preparing their three dogs in case the couple needed to throw the pets in the truck.

He was also watching familiar, beloved 300-year-old live oaks go up in billows of flame and smoke.

On Thursday evening, firefighters were expected to fully contain the Riverside County fire that destroyed five homes in Reche Canyon on Tuesday and Wednesday and charred 2,387 acres.

In San Diego County, the fire that erupted Tuesday at Camp Pendleton spread to more than 2,800 acres, but was reported 30% contained. No structures were damaged, but hundreds of homeowners in the nearby De Luz area left for their own safety. The blaze was started by a live-fire ordnance exercise on the base.

On Thursday, the Marine Corps suspended such activity.

Times staff writers Janet Wilson, Tony Perry and Wendy Thermos contributed to this report.

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