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Wildfire Toll Tops 1,500 Homes

Deaths Rise to 14 as Weary Crews Fight on 3 Advancing Fronts

October 28, 2003|Tracy Wilson, Stuart Pfeifer and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

Dry, shifting winds kept weary firefighters off balance Monday as the Southern California fires advanced along three major fronts, one of them pushing into the northwestern reaches of the city of Los Angeles.

By Monday night, the three-day toll stood at 14 dead, 1,518 homes destroyed and more than 500,000 acres burned.

Wind and visibility improved enough for air tankers to join the firefight, and tenacious crews beat back flames from the Ventura County city of Fillmore. By late Monday afternoon, weather forecasters said, a shift had begun toward cooler, moister conditions -- the best possible news for those whose homes lie in the paths of the fires.

But the 10 separate blazes stubbornly persisted, threatening more homes and lives in a broken arc from Ventura County east to San Bernardino County and south to Tijuana.

"This will be the most expensive fire in California history, both in loss of property and the cost of fighting it," Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, said in a telephone news conference Monday. He said he could not yet estimate the extent of the loss.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Satellite image -- A satellite image of Southern California and its coast that ran in Tuesday's Section A with a map showing developments in Southland fires showed conditions on Sunday, not Monday, as text accompanying the map implied.

The most expensive fire in the state's history has been the Oakland Hills fire of October 1991, which had property losses estimated at $1.75 billion, a figure that would be considerably higher today because of rising property values. Three thousand homes were destroyed and 25 people died in that fire.

San Diego County has been hardest hit by the latest series of fires -- at least three under investigation as possible arson -- and lost dozens more homes Monday when flames jumped across Interstate 8 and rampaged through the Crest and Alpine communities in the mountains east of San Diego. Among the houses destroyed was that of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), who had been critical of Gov. Gray Davis for not responding aggressively enough to the fire.

Fire crews fought desperately to keep that fire from joining another and creating what one firefighter worried would be an "unstoppable hurricane of fire."

One fire crossed the Mexican border into Tijuana, and an unrelated fire destroyed 10 homes near Ensenada.

San Diego officials dramatically increased their damage accounts Monday after damage-assessment teams fanned out across the county to examine fire-ravaged neighborhoods.

By the end of the day, they had more than doubled their count of destroyed homes to more than 900, making these fires the most destructive in the county's history.

In the north, a blaze that began in Simi Valley crossed from Ventura County into Los Angeles County and advanced menacingly toward the foothill communities of Porter Ranch and Chatsworth.

In the San Bernardino Mountains, firefighters took a risky gambit by setting controlled burns south of Lake Arrowhead in a effort to halt the advance of a fire that threatened a string of resort communities home to more than 45,000 people.

President Bush declared a disaster area in the stricken region, opening the way for federal assistance to fire victims in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. "This is a devastating fire, and it's a dangerous fire," the president told reporters.

California's incoming and outgoing governors toured charred areas; both appeared sobered. "They say these are the most devastating fires that have happened in the last decade," Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger said during a visit to Simi Valley. "What the firefighters are doing here is extraordinary. This is why I'm out here visiting, to let them know what great heroes they are."

Davis, at Scripps Ranch in San Diego County, said he was reminded of scenes of devastation that he saw as a soldier in Vietnam.

The fires forced the closures of hundreds of schools and businesses. Hospitals reported a large number of people suffering breathing problems from the thick haze that hung over much of the region in a toxic blanket of grays, greens and yellows. Some areas were blanketed by a snow-like coating of ash.

Airports from Los Angeles to San Diego continued to experience delays that rippled across the nation's air system for a second day Monday as Federal Aviation Administration officials worked to bring a San Diego air traffic control center back in service by this morning.

Officials closed the radar control center, which routes traffic into and out of the region's airports, after it was threatened by fire Sunday.


Ventura, L.A. Counties

In Ventura County, fire crews battled on two fronts as the 90,000-acre Simi fire threatened exclusive canyon communities on the Los Angeles County line, and firefighters were credited with saving Fillmore from a 50,000-acre blaze that marched to the city limits.

No more homes were burned, authorities said, keeping at 30 the number of structures damaged or destroyed during the Simi fire, which began Friday night near Santa Clarita.

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