Firefighters gain on LA-area blaze

October 15, 2008 5:12:10 AM PDT
A respite in Santa Ana winds allowed firefighters to beat back flames that continued to whirl dangerously close to homes Wednesday morning along the city's northwestern suburbs. Fire crews spent Tuesday night unleashing loads of water on hot spots of the more than 20-square-mile blaze charring slopes above the San Fernando Valley communities of Porter Ranch and Granada Hills. Flames also pushed west into Ventura County and threatened homes in Simi Valley.

The fire, one of three major blazes that have burned 34 square miles of Southern California, was 20 percent contained late Tuesday night. Firefighters hoped for winds to remain calm through Wednesday.

"The potential for heavy winds is there," Ventura County fire spokesman Tom Kruschke said. "We'll have to wait and see what Mother Nature brings us."

Winds were forecast to reach only about 13 mph Wednesday morning, though temperatures were expected to reach into the 90s later in the day, the National Weather Service said.

In a hectic start this week to the wildfire season, blazes have destroyed dozens of homes, forced thousands of people to evacuate and caused two deaths. One man died in the flames, and a motorist was killed in a crash as a fire neared a freeway.

But for some residents in the northwestern suburbs, the flames seemed more of a curiosity than a danger. One man spent Tuesday night on the trunk of his car outside his home and watched firefighters battle a blaze that had already burned down nearby slopes.

In another neighborhood in Simi Valley, Gabriel Viola and Gheith Effarah stood outside Viola's house, chatting about the fire. They had gathered valuables and documents just in case, but neither seemed worried about the fire spreading.

"You don't want to be completely dumb," Effarah said. "I've been living here eight years and this is the third time we've gone through this. The firefighters seem to be on the ball. It calms you down."

Fifteen homes and 47 outbuildings were destroyed in the Porter Ranch area, and six more homes were damaged, said Los Angeles County fire Inspector Ron Haralson. Evacuation orders for several neighborhoods, including large parts of Porter Ranch, were lifted Tuesday night, but Haralson warned that the situation could quickly change along with the winds. Warnings for critical fire weather conditions were to remain in effect until Wednesday night.

Ten miles away, there was major progress against Los Angeles' other big wildfire.

A 7 1/2-square-mile blaze in the northeastern San Fernando Valley was 80 percent contained and some evacuees were allowed to go home. But people who lived in an area where 38 mobile homes were destroyed were not permitted to return.

Teresa Escamilla, 47, lay on a cot in a Red Cross shelter, thinking the worst. She believed she lost everything including a shoebox containing five years of savings.

"It feels like it's not real," the nursing assistant said in Spanish. "It's a nightmare."

Some residents managed to sneak into the Sky Terrace Lodge mobile home park, where numerous homes were reduced to lumps of melted plastic and buckled wood.

Darlene and Ken Rede's house survived, but one next door was gone. On their porch, a weather gauge was melted while a roll of paper towels hanging below it was untouched.

"Why did we get spared?" Darlene Rede asked. "I feel so bad for the people, my emotions are running crazy."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa acknowledged the uncertainty facing residents of the fire areas.

"Many still don't know when they are going to return home," he said a news conference. "Our hearts and prayers are out with all of them."

On the north coast of San Diego County, a 6-square-mile fire at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton was 60 percent contained. Most evacuation orders were lifted for residents of about 1,500 homes in neighboring Oceanside and many Marine Corps personnel and family members in military housing, but some remained in emergency shelters.

In eastern San Diego County along the U.S.-Mexico border, a fire burned a third of a square mile and forced residents from 300 homes in the community of Campo before it was contained Tuesday night.

The outbreak of fires followed the weekend arrival of the first significant Santa Ana winds of the fall.

The Santa Ana winds usually sweep in between October and February as cold, dry air descending over the Great Basin flows toward Southern California and squeezes through mountain passes and canyons. The extremely low humidity levels, which make vegetation easier to burn, and high windspeeds combine to whip fires into infernos.

---

Associated Press writers Raquel Maria Dillon, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, Solvej Schou, Robert Jablon in Los Angeles and Chelsea J. Carter in San Diego contributed to this report.


Load Comments