California Battered by Wind-whipped Wildfires

Powerful winds stoked three major wildfires on Tuesday morning after destroying dozens of homes, forcing thousands to flee and killing two people.

A U.S. forest service firefighter battles towering flames burning along Little Tugunga Road, in the Angeles National Forest, about 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles on Sunday Oct. 12, 2008. Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Ron Haralson says the blaze has charred up to 750 acres in the rugged area of Little Tujunga Canyon. (AP Photo/Mike Meadows)

LOS ANGELES - Powerful winds stoked three major wildfires on Tuesday morning after destroying dozens of homes, forcing thousands to flee and killing two people.

The fires have charred nearly 13,000 acres in suburban Los Angeles and northern San Diego County in three days, with the fiercest blazes burning in the San Fernando Valley.

More than 2,000 firefighters and a fleet of water- and retardant-dropping aircraft battled the 5,000 acre Sesnon Fire, which was burning brightly and sending flames skyward Tuesday in canyons on the west end of the valley, and the 5,300-acre Marek Fire at the northeast end. Combined, more than 15 square miles had burned.

Santa Ana winds were gusting at 50 mph in parts of the valley Tuesday morning, county fire officials said.

Another 3,000 acres were scorched by Tuesday morning in Camp Pendleton, forcing the evacuation of more than 1,400 homes at the huge San Diego County Marine base and in nearby Oceanside, according to the base's Web site. The fast-growing blaze had yet to burn any structures on the base.

Firefighters had little to no containment of any of the fires early Tuesday.

"The fire wants to make its way to the coast, and we're going to do our level best to stop it," said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey. "Two-thirds of our department is on the line."

The California Highway Patrol expected snarled traffic Tuesday morning. In San Bernardino, Interstate 215 was closed in both directions as firefighters dealt with separate fires in the area.

The 118 Ronald Reagan Freeway was closed again Tuesday as smoke and flames from the Sesnon Fire approached the roadway.

The freeway was the scene of a fatal wreck Monday when a tow truck rear-ended a car and killed the driver on the smoky roadway. California Highway Patrol Officer Leland Tang said traffic stalled because firefighters were going by as fire neared the route.

A second fatality was discovered Monday at the Marek Fire, an area where neighborhoods abut rugged canyonlands below the mountainous Angeles National Forest. The victim was a man who appeared to be a transient living with a dog in a makeshift shelter, officials said. Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa said it would take some time to identify the victim.

Authorities confirmed more than three dozen mobile homes burned in the Marek Fire, and 19 structures — some of them homes — were destroyed by the Sesnon Fire. Commercial sites burned in both fires.

Fire officials alerted other communities to the west in the Ventura County city of Simi Valley and south to Malibu, 20 miles away, as an ominous plume streamed over neighborhoods and far out to sea.

A fire broke out near the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego County Tuesday morning and forced the evacuation of about 300 homes, said Sheriff's Lt. Anthony Ray. It had burned about 150 acres on both side of Highway 94 but no structures have been burned and no one has been injured, Ray said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and urged residents to be prepared for anything.

"Winds are causing fire conditions to change by the hour, which is why it is so important that residents in the areas surrounding these wildfires heed warnings from public safety officials to evacuate," Schwarzenegger said.

Firefighters on Monday were struggling with the resurgent, day-old Marek Fire when a new blaze erupted at midmorning a few miles to the west on Oat Mountain above Porter Ranch and quickly grew as winds blew from the northeast, spitting embers among homes.

Residents were not allowed to drive into one of Porter Ranch's gated communities, so they parked their cars, ran to their homes and carried out whatever they could carry in pillow cases, in their arms, sacks and suitcases. Some ran out clutching paintings.

In nearby Twin Lakes, a neighborhood of narrow streets perched above the 118 Freeway, the fire raced through the community of about 95 homes, destroying at least four.

Matthew Vitiello, 46, stuck it out with his two dogs as embers rained down around him and a nearby home burned. Asked why he decided not to evacuate, Vitiello pointed to a pine tree across the street.

"If that sucker goes, then it's time for me to go," he said.

An estimated 1,200 people were evacuated due to 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. Various industrial sites also burned.

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

The dry and warm Santa Ana winds typically blow into Southern California between October and February, priming vegetation for fires by slashing moisture levels. Last October, fires fanned by Santa Anas destroyed 2,196 homes and burned a combined 800 square miles in Southern California.


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