Calif. fires wreak damage topping $1 billion but cause few deaths

Thursday, October 25, 2007
An Orange County firefighter faced a wall of fire Wednesday in Live Oak Canyon in eastern Orange County, Calif. The fires, in their fourth day, had destroyed 1,500 homes and caused at least a half-million people to flee, the largest evacuation in state history. At least 1,200 of the damaged homes were in San Diego County, and officials believe that number will rise. (Chris Carlson ~ Associated Press)

SAN DIEGO -- Steve Levstik and his wife got 15 minutes of warning before flames swept through their neighborhood. That was 15 minutes more than last time.

Levstik was thankful for the reverse 911 calls that San Diego County used to urge hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes ahead of wildfires propelled by strong wind. Officials there ordered 10 times more evacuations than they did in 2003, the last time fires of similar magnitude hit Southern California.

For the Levstiks, in the hard-hit community of Rancho Bernardo, it was still a close call: Flames blocked the main road out, forcing them to take another route as trees exploded into fireballs on both sides of the street.

"They are more determined that people leave," said Levstik, 47. "It was very intense. On the call, it was like, 'This area, go! This area, go!' In 2003 there was less guidance. It was like, 'Just pay attention to the news and if it looks bad, leave.'"

Some Californians complained that authorities were at times overcautious, but officials had one key statistic to support their actions: Only one person confirmed killed by flames that claimed about 674 square miles and 1,500 homes, and that person reportedly had refused orders to leave.

Winds dropped to 21 to 36 mph Wednesday, considerably less than the fierce gusts of up to 100 mph earlier in the week.

The improving weather allowed for greater aerial assault on the flames and helped firefighters beat back the most destructive blazes. Helicopters and air tankers dropped 30 to 35 loads of water on two fires that have burned hundreds of homes in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Authorities said they had largely contained many of the fires north of San Diego, and all five fires in Los Angeles County were about 50 percent contained or more. None of the six major blazes in San Diego County was more than 15 percent contained, however. Those fires threatened more than 8,500 houses.

The top priority was a fire in San Bernardino County that threatened 6,000 homes.

The San Diego County medical examiner's office listed six deaths connected with the blazes, including five who died after they evacuated but were not directly killed by the fire. The toll may rise as authorities return to neighborhoods where homes turned to piles of ash, but displaced homeowners and authorities expressed relief that early reports were so low.

Property damage has reached at least $1 billion in San Diego County alone, where at least 1,200 homes were destroyed and most of the more than half a million evacuations occurred. President Bush signed a major disaster declaration for California.

Thousands of families were left wondering if their homes were still standing, but some were quickly able to get a good hint. Dooley knew his home was OK because his answering machine still worked.

About two dozen people gathered at a police barricade at Rancho Bernardo, hoping to get back to retrieve medications and belongings -- or simply to see if their homes were still standing.

An apocalyptic scene awaited many: entire streets leveled, charred hulks of metal that once were cars sitting in driveways of homes with only chimneys left standing. House after house, 29 on one street alone, was reduced to piles of blackened concrete and twisted metal.

At one point, police officers lifted a barricade into the neighborhood only to turn residents away several hundred yards down the road at a second barricade. Some of the homeowners cursed at the officers.

"You let us in just to send us back out," one angry man yelled from his car.

Six of San Diego County's 42 evacuation centers were full Wednesday but there was plenty of space at Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL Chargers, where about 10,000 people sought refuge. People rested on cots that lined covered walkways circling the bleachers and quietly watched television.

Some displaced homeowners complained that the evacuations went too far.

Ron Morris, 68, saw smoke but no flames when he was ordered to leave a motor home park in Ramona, northeast of San Diego, Sunday night. He drove his home to Qualcomm Stadium's parking lot.

"It's good that everyone got out but they did it too early in my opinion." he said.

Authorities made no excuses.

"One happy consequence" of the 2003 fires is that people remember that fire can be very unpredictable, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an interview Wednesday.

"All but the most unlucky people can see the fire coming," he said. "There's no reason you should have loss of life, certainly for civilians."

The fires have burned across five counties in Southern California, from Ventura in the north all the way into Mexico. Unlike Hurricane Katrina, the hardest-hit neighborhoods were filled with upscale homes, with easy access to wide streets.

Less wealthy areas -- including rural enclaves and horse farms that stretch through mountains east of San Diego -- benefited from easy road access and small crowds.

The causes of many fires remained under investigation. A 30-square-mile Orange County fire that destroyed nine homes was believed to be arson because authorities found three different ignition points within a short distance.

In San Bernardino County, a motorcyclist who authorities say set a small fire in a rural foothill area of the San Bernardino Mountains has been booked for investigation of arson, but investigators said they didn't know whether he was connected to any of the larger fires.

In the city of San Bernardino, police said they shot and killed a man who fled Tuesday night when officers approached to see if he might be trying to set a fire. After a chase, the man, whose name was not released, backed his car into a police cruiser and an officer opened fire, police said.

The only confirmed death from the flames was Thomas Varshock, 52, of Tecate, a town on the U.S. side of the border southeast of San Diego, the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office said. Authorities had told him to evacuate, but he didn't leave and authorities left to take care of other evacuations, the medical examiner's office said.

Firefighters returned to save two people trapped at his home Sunday but were unable to rescue Varshock, said Rick Hutchinson, a deputy incident commander for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Four firefighters were overcome by flames. One was in critical condition Wednesday; another was in serious condition.

Al Guerin, a San Diego County assistant sheriff, estimated only 100 to 200 people ignored evacuation orders. That included 20 people in the rural community of Jamul, near the Mexican border. Firefighters returned to save them.

Another 25 to 30 homeowners ignored orders Tuesday to leave unincorporated Deerhorn Valley southeast of San Diego, forcing firefighters to return to save them, Hutchinson said.

Homeowners who stayed behind knew firefighters were overwhelmed and figured their lives were safe, Guerin said.

"They say, 'Yeah, OK," and then they call you later and say 'Help! Help! Help!" he said.

Despite road blocks in the San Bernardino Mountains, east of Los Angeles, some stayed behind.

"They don't want to lose their stuff," said Running Springs resident Don Rice. "And they get overconfident. We've all made it through a lot of fires."


Contributing to this report were Associated Press Writers Gillian Flaccus, Allison Hoffman and Scott Lindlaw in San Diego and AP National Writer Martha Mendoza in Running Springs, Calif.

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