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Southern California wildfires destroy more than 200 homes

Sunday, October 26, 2003

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- A wildfire leaped through dense housing tracts in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains on Saturday, destroying more than 200 homes, threatening 1,000 others and forcing thousands of people to flee under a sky thick with smoke and tinged orange-red by flames.

The fire, which erupted around 9 a.m. about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, was propelled by fierce Santa Ana winds as it devoured 10,000 acres of chaparral within hours, spreading to a 12-mile front. The blaze and an even larger wildfire nearby that burned at least 10 homes Saturday closed highways, cut off power to thousands and choked the region with heavy smoke and flaming ash.

The fires were among several major blazes in Southern California, fueled by high winds, low humidity and temperatures that climbed into the 90s.

A new fire broke out Saturday night just west of Crestline, near the San Bernardino fire. An evacuation was ordered at 7 p.m., affecting hundreds of residents, said Stanton Florea, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

The cause of the San Bernardino fire was unknown and no injuries were reported, but more than 200 homes were destroyed by Saturday night, said Robin Renteria, a San Bernardino National Forest spokeswoman.

The fire moved erratically, burning down one house, then skipping two before snaring another. In some cases back yards burned and houses were unscathed, or burned only partially. Firefighting helicopters flew low to drop water on houses until they were grounded as winds gusted to 40 mph.

Fighting with garden hoses

Evacuations were ordered for thousands in San Bernardino and Crestline, but many residents refused to leave and tried to fight the fire with garden hoses.

Robert Wilkes, 50, had red, irritated eyes from the ash as he tried to save his home and those of his neighbors. The fire jumped from palm tree to palm tree, igniting a house across the street from Wilkes. He blasted it with a garden hose, but turned around when the fire spread to a home next to his.

"He saved our house," said neighbor Dwane Caddell. Much of the rest of his property was damaged, however: His swimming pool was black with debris and singed palm trees and shrubbery surrounded the house.

At a packed evacuation center outside San Bernardino International Airport, as many as 1,000 people were sheltered, including about 50 elderly people in wheelchairs who were taken from a convalescent home. Hundreds of people sat beside their cars in the parking lot.

One family gathered in a prayer circle. Dozens of caged dogs and cats evacuated by their owners lined the roads.

Santa Ana fans flames

At California State University, San Bernardino, the fire damaged two temporary classrooms and a temporary fitness center. A residence hall that houses about 1,000 students was evacuated, but about half the students had already left for the weekend, said university spokesman Joe Gutierrez.

The fire closed Highway 18 into the San Bernardino Mountains and knocked out two transmission lines that provided electricity to about 28,000 customers in mountain hamlets including Lake Arrowhead, Crestline and Running Springs. Many houses in the area are vacation homes, said Steve Conroy of Southern California Edison, who added that with the fire hindering repair work, the blackout could continue for as long as 72 hours.

City Fire Chief Larry Pitzer said more than 1,000 firefighters were battling the fire, which spread furiously both up and down Old Waterman Canyon. It also split east and west, creating two fronts for firefighters to battle.

Compounding the problem was a bark beetle infestation that has killed hundreds of thousands of acres of trees in the Southern California mountains.

San Bernardino County officials requested more firefighters from the state because local ranks were depleted, city fire Battalion Chief Jess Campos said. The county also asked the governor to declare a state of emergency and the request was under review, said Eric Lamoureux, spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services.

Winds pushed embers ahead of the fire mass, adding to the pall of smoke from a 16,000-acre fire about a dozen miles away in the Rancho Cucamonga area.

The fire in Rancho Cucamonga jumped down a hillside into an area of $1 million homes Saturday. Feeding on head-high scrub oak and chaparral, it marched into the northern edge of the city, burning at least two homes and forcing hundreds to evacuate. Later, east-shifting winds drove flames into the nearby community of Lytle Creek, burning eight homes there.

There were 3,400 homes threatened in Rancho Cucamonga, Lytle Creek and Upland, Beckley said. The mountain community of Mt. Baldy also was ordered evacuated.

The arson fire was started Tuesday and was only about 20 percent contained. It was particularly violent and unpredictable because its own fierce winds were combining with rising Santa Ana gusts.

Since it began Tuesday, the Rancho Cucamonga fire has destroyed 14 homes and one outbuilding. About 1,700 people had been evacuated, county sheriff's spokeswoman Sandy Fatland said.

Other wildfires threatened to spread as winds and heat rose.

In northern Los Angeles County, 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles, a fire near Santa Clarita swelled to 4,200 acres and a voluntary evacuation was called for 328 homes in the town of Piru, less than five miles away.

Authorities feared that fire might connect to a fire near Piru in Ventura County, which had charred about 1,250 acres Saturday. Four firefighters were injured.

At the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, 50 miles north of San Diego, firefighters battled a 4,700-acre blaze that threatened about 300 homes in nearby De Luz. Five firefighters were injured and more than 1,300 were on the line.


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