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A Rampage of Firestorms

13 Die, 700 Structures Are Lost to Wind-Driven Flames

October 27, 2003|Louis Sahagun, Joel Rubin and mitchell landsberg | Times Staff Writers

A crescent of fire continued to rage through Southern California on Sunday, destroying hundreds of homes, claiming at least 11 more lives and throwing the entire region into an eerie, smoky half-light.

A searing Santa Ana wind blew flames over mountain slopes like an incandescent hurricane, burning more than 500 homes and bringing the fires' two-day toll to more than 700 buildings. The combined fires stretched over 250,000 acres -- about half the size of Rhode Island -- in an arc from Ventura County to the Mexican border.

More than 5,000 firefighters battled the infernos, at least two of which were believed to have been caused by arson. Veteran fire officials described them as the most awesome and unstoppable blazes they had ever seen. Weather forecasts call for high winds and heat today.

"It goes wherever it wants to go and consumes whatever it wants," Capt. Doug Johnston of the Kern County Fire Department said of one of the largest fires, in San Bernardino County. "It's humbling. There's only so much you can do with a wind-driven fire like this."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Lindbergh Field -- An article in Monday's Section A about Southern California wildfires incorrectly reported that San Diego's international airport, Lindbergh Field, was closed. The airport is operating under a reduced flight schedule.

The fires did their worst damage, in terms of property loss, along the ragged fringe of mountain slopes where suburbia meets the wilderness -- a classic Southern California landscape that has long lured people to build homes in forest and brushland despite the likelihood that they eventually will be threatened by fire.

"It was lush," Donald Carpenter said as he surveyed the charred remains of his 2 1/2-acre hillside garden in Claremont. "Now it's ash." And Carpenter was lucky: The fire stopped just short of his house.

At least nine fires in six counties disrupted the lives of untold thousands. In San Bernardino County alone, 40,000 people were evacuated. The fires:

* Caused delays and flight cancellations at Southern California airports after flames forced the closure of a major air traffic control center near San Diego.

* Closed numerous highways, including portions of Interstates 15 and 215 in San Bernardino County, re-routing drivers returning from Las Vegas.

* Forced the closure of hundreds of schools in many areas today, including Cal State San Bernardino.

* Halted rail traffic through the Cajon Pass, one of the main freight thoroughfares connecting Southern California ports with the rest of the country.

* Prompted warnings against outdoor exercise throughout Southern California.

Gov. Gray Davis declared states of emergency in San Bernardino, Ventura, San Diego and Los Angeles counties. He also asked President Bush to declare a federal disaster area for much of Southern California, clearing the way for federal assistance.

"Our hearts go out to you," Davis told evacuees who stayed overnight at San Bernardino International Airport. "I know what it's like to have to leave your home." Davis was referring to the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which damaged his West Hollywood condominium.

Davis said Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger will be in Washington on Tuesday, and will lobby for federal assistance. A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said the governor-elect was receiving regular briefings from Dallas Jones, the head of the state Office of Emergency Services.

The most deadly of the fires rampaged through dry brush in northeastern San Diego County. At least 11 people died in the Cedar and Paradise fires, most trapped in their cars as they tried to flee. The worse of the two, the Cedar fire, also destroyed about 50 homes in Ramona and the Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta neighborhoods of San Diego.

More destructive in terms of property loss were twin blazes centered in San Bernardino County. The two converged Sunday when the Old fire, the more easterly of the two, jumped the 215 Freeway near Devore and touched the Grand Prix fire, said Norm Walker, a division chief with the U.S. Forest Service.

The two fires created a contiguous band of more than 60,000 blackened acres from Claremont in the west, where fire crews managed to gain control over the firestorm, to Running Springs in the east, where the blaze continued to burn out of control between Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear. A smaller fire destroyed homes in Crestline, raising fears that one or another of the fires could sweep unchecked through the popular resort communities around Lake Arrowhead, where fire officials have been sounding alarms for years about a buildup of brush and dead trees.

Another major fire raged in Ventura County, charring at least 90,000 acres of hillsides and rangeland, destroying or damaging eight homes and prompting evacuation of a county jail and neighborhoods in Fillmore, Moorpark, Santa Paula and Simi Valley.

At one point Sunday, the fire approached the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, but eventually was beaten back without causing any damage there. Other, smaller fires charred brushland in Chatsworth, Malibu, parts of Orange County and the remote Riverside County community of Sage, near Hemet. The Sage fire scorched 3,000 acres and destroyed six structures.


San Bernardino/L.A. County Fires

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