Thousands evacuate as fires destroy Calif. homes

By: AP
By: AP
A wind-blasted wildfire tore through the city

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 (AP) -- A wind-blasted wildfire tore through the city's northern foothills Saturday, devastating a large mobile home park, forcing a hospital to evacuate some patients and sending thousands of residents fleeing for safety.

The fire broke out late Friday in the foothill community of Sylmar on the edge of the Angeles National Forest and quickly spread across 2,600 acres - more than 4 square miles - as it was driven by Santa Ana wind gusting as high as 76 mph.

Dozens of homes were destroyed, officials said, and aerial footage from television helicopters showed rows of houses gutted in just in one subdivision.

Fire crews had to abandon a mobile home park that was burning out of control.

"We have almost total devastation here in the mobile park," Los Angeles Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said of the Oakridge Mobile Home Park. "I can't even read the street names because the street signs are melting."

At an evacuation center, Oakridge resident Wendy Vannenberg said the park had about 600 residences, many of them housing senior citizens. The same park had been evacuated during a fire last month.

"Last time I took all of my grandparents' things. They had brought over them from Germany after World War II," said Vannenberg, 46. "This time, I didn't really grab anything. I don't know why."

Behind a fireline outside the mobile park, Jo Ordaz, 50, anxiously waited to learn the fate of her three-bedroom home as ash-laden wind gusts flicked branches from trees and rocked parked cars.

Ordaz and her daughter and a friend had grabbed only their essential documents and a few photographs before evacuating.

"I'm just feeling devastated, I don't know," Ordaz said, soot collecting in her ears and around the edges of the dust mask on her face. "We're just waiting."

Fire officials estimated 10,000 people lived in the area under mandatory evacuation in the Sylmar, Knollwood and Porter Ranch communities. About 80 miles to the northwest, an 1,800-acre blaze in the Santa Barbara community of Montecito had forced the evacuation of more than 5,400 homes and destroyed more than 110 homes.

The Los Angeles fire jumped two freeways, leading police to shut them down and forcing evacuees to take surface streets.

"Near hurricane winds made it very difficult for firefighters," Los Angeles Fire deputy chief Mario Rueda said.

The Los Angeles blaze threatened at least 1,000 buildings, fire spokeswoman Melissa Kelley said.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the fire brought down some power lines and could cause rolling blackouts. He urged residents throughout the city to conserve power.

Flames struck the edge of the Olive View-UCLA Medical Center campus shortly after midnight, causing an electricity outage that forced officials to evacuate two dozen critical patients. About 130 other patients stayed behind.

Several administrative buildings were damaged.

The hospital's power and backup generators failed, and emergency room staff had to keep critical patients alive with hand powered ventilators. Twenty-eight people, including 10 neonatal babies, were rushed out by ambulance to another hospital.

"It was totally dark," said hospital spokeswoman Carla Nino. "There was dense smoke."

Power was restored at the hospital after three hours.

Some people refused to leave their homes, grabbing water hoses to defend their homes, but others left even before mandatory evacuation orders were issued.

"I can see the smoke. It's terrible. I'm going to take my dog and go," Dorothy Boyer told The Associated Press from her home late Friday.

One resident was hospitalized in serious condition with burns over 60 percent of his body, Kelley said. Two firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

More than 600 firefighters struggled to protect homes threatened by flying embers. Because of the rough terrain in the forest, they were relying on water-dropping helicopters to tackle flames. Authorities said some aircraft were grounded during the night by the savage wind, but they expected six airplanes and a dozen helicopters to attack the fire during the day.

Flying embers ignited sporadic spot fires and firefighters were patrolling the evacuated neighborhoods "making sure these small fires don't turn into big fires," Rueda said.

If the fire continues marching west, it could be slowed by a fire break that resulted from a wildfire which burned about 14,000-acres near Porter Ranch last month, authorities said. A second fire only a few miles away had killed one person, torched 4,800 acres of land and destroyed about 40 homes.

The fire in Montecito started Thursday night, exploding through dry brush and vast stands of oil-rich eucalyptus trees. About 800 firefighters were battling the fire at the wealthy, celebrity-studded enclave, and they were expected to make significant progress through Saturday morning, said Santa Barbara city fire spokesman John Ahlman.

"There's plenty of hot material still left out there," he said. "But things could change in a hurry if the winds pick up."

Several multimillion-dollar homes and a small college suffered major damage in Montecito, a quaint and secluded area that has attracted celebrities such as Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas and Oprah Winfrey.

The fire quickly consumed rows of luxury homes and parts of Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts school, where students spent the night in a gymnasium shelter.

"That whole mountain over there went up at once. Boom," said Bob McNall, 70, who with his son and grandson saved their home by hosing it down. "The whole sky was full of embers. There was nothing that they could do. It was just too much."

Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum said up to 200 homes may have been destroyed or damaged.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

At least 13 people were injured in Montecito. A 98-year-old man with multiple medical problems died after being evacuated, but it was unclear if his death was directly related to the blaze, Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said.

Montecito, known for its balmy climate and charming Spanish colonial homes, suffered a major fire in 1977, when more than 200 homes burned. A fire in 1964 burned about 67,000 acres and damaged 150 houses and buildings.

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Denise Petski, Alicia Chang, Bob Jablon and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles and Thomas Watkins and Amy Taxin in Montecito contributed to this report.

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