Wildfires burn homes, kill 1 in Los Angeles area

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Two wildfires driven by strong Santa Ana winds threatened neighborhoods near Los Angeles on Monday, killing a man, destroying several dozen mobile homes and forcing evacuations.

Firefighters were struggling with a 3,700-acre blaze in the San Fernando Valley's northeastern corner when a new blaze erupted at midmorning a few miles to the west in mountains above the Porter Ranch area and quickly grew to 2,000 acres.

"It is a blowtorch we can't get in front of," said Los Angeles County fire Inspector Frank Garrido.

Fire officials could not immediately estimate how many homes in Porter Ranch were in the fire's path. Flames burned furiously at midday just across a road from one development of luxury homes. Fire officials alerted other communities as far south as Malibu, 20 miles away.

The fatality occurred at the first fire, where neighborhoods abut rugged canyonlands below the mountainous Angeles National forest. The victim was a man who appeared to be a transient living in a makeshift shelter, officials said.

About 1,200 people were evacuated because of the Marek Fire, which was just 5 percent contained.

Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mark Savage said 37 or 38 mobile homes were destroyed by that blaze early Monday.

"We could have had an army there and it would not have stopped it," Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Mario Rueda said. "Wind is king here, it's dictating everything we are doing."

Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, the hospital closest to the Marek Fire, evacuated eight of its most fragile patients to other hospitals. Spokeswoman Carla Nino said those patients - six newborns, a heart bypass patient and another described as "medically fragile -were all on ventilators and were the most difficult to transport.

About 180 patients remained at the hospital as officials waited to determine if the fire would actually approach.

The dry and warm Santa Ana winds typically blow into Southern California between October and February. As they whistle through canyons and valleys, they pick up speed, drying out vegetation and hastening the spread of any fires that break out.

Because of the fires, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, an anti-pollution agency, says air quality may reach unhealthful levels in the area and urged people to avoid outdoor activities.

The Marek Fire began early Sunday during the first significant Santa Ana of the season, and about 1,000 firefighters from multiple agencies were deployed. The cause was under investigation.

"This is what we feared the most," said Savage. "The winds that were expected, they have arrived."

The blaze diminished overnight, but authorities warned it was a sleeping giant. Fierce winds returned before dawn and sent it raging again.

Flames jumped the Foothill Freeway, which was closed in both directions for about a three-mile stretch in northern Los Angeles between the 118 Freeway and Interstate 5 amid the morning rush hour, officials said.

"That was quite a jump, that's an eight-lane fire break," said fire spokesman Inspector Paul Hartwell.

Red Cross spokesman Nick Samaniego said about 100 evacuees had gathered at San Fernando High School, where some had seen news footage of their homes burning.

"You can imagine, it's a devastating situation," he said. "A lot of people on pins and needles waiting to hear news about their communities."

Jim Williams, 72, grabbed his medication, comb and toothbrush and was out of his house within five minutes. The longtime resident said the area hadn't burned since 1974.

"I didn't expect it again," Williams said. "The trees there at the time burned and didn't grow back, only brush. I felt relatively safe that if the brush burned, it would only be a small fire, nothing like this."

Most schools in the area were closed Monday.

Also Monday, firefighters contained small blazes near Santa Clarita in northern Los Angeles County and near a Santa Paula oil facility in Ventura County.


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