Southern California battles devastating wildfires

By: AMY TAXIN, Associated Press Writer
By: AMY TAXIN, Associated Press Writer

YORBA LINDA, Calif. – Walls of towering flames pushed by Santa Ana wind raged through Southern California hills early Sunday after destroying hundreds of homes and forcing thousands of residents to flee.

Evacuees could only watch the wildfires from a distance and wait to learn the fate of their homes and possessions.

"I'm hoping my house will not burn down, but if it burns down that's my life, right? I've got to start from scratch again," said Jack Chen, 56, of Yorba Linda as he sat on a cot in a gym at Katella High School in Anaheim.

Fires in Los Angeles County, to the east in Riverside and Orange counties, and to the northwest in Santa Barbara County had blackened nearly 29 square miles and destroyed more than 800 mobile homes, houses and apartments since Thursday night. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared states of emergency in all three counties.

Forecasts indicated the Santa Ana wind would abate by Sunday afternoon, but humidity would remain very low.

The most threatening blaze early Sunday had charred more than 11 square miles in Orange and Riverside counties since erupting Saturday and shooting through subdivisions entwined with wilderness parklands. Containment was just 5 percent.

More than 60 homes burned in the communities of Corona, Yorba Linda and the Anaheim Hills area of Anaheim. In addition, 50 units of one apartment complex burned, Orange County fire spokeswoman Angela Garbiso said.

On Sunday, fire was dangerously close to a mobile home park in the Olinda Village area north of Yorba Linda, but firefighters had been able to push it back, said Lynette Round, another fire spokeswoman.

At one point a firefighter battling the Orange County apartment blaze ran down a street with two Pomeranian dogs — one white and one brown — under each arm and placed them in a TV news truck, then dashed back to the fire. The firefighter, who would not give his name, said he rescued the dogs from a burning apartment.

Apartment resident Melody Ma, 24, said she took her sister to piano lessons Saturday morning, when the smoke appeared to be far away, then found she couldn't return home.

"There's things you can't replace like photos and stuff," said Ma, bursting into tears in a shelter.

Evacuee Gail Slagel, 61, said she spent Saturday watching flames in the area around her house from the safety of a Yorba Linda strip mall.

"I just kept sitting there saying, 'Please, please, please, give me a home to come home to, don't let it be gone," she said as she sat outside a restaurant with her ash-covered poodle.

Capt. Leonard Grill, a 20-year veteran of the Riverside County Fire Department, watched for flaring embers in a Yorba Linda neighborhood late Saturday.

"It's gotten worse and worse every year. I can't keep track of them anymore," Grill said of recent destructive wildfires. "These used to be the out-of-the-ordinary fires, once-in-a-career kind of fires. Now they're every year. "

Six firefighters from various agencies were injured in the blaze, including four Corona firefighters who were hurt when flames swept over their engine, Garbiso said. Two of the Corona crewmembers required hospital treatment but were released.

A separate fire in the Orange County city of Brea charred more than 2 square miles and destroyed the main building of a high school.

The largest fire had grown to more than 12 square miles in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley since destroying 500 mobile homes, nine single-family homes and 11 commercial buildings early Saturday. Containment was put at 20 percent.

Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Steve Ruda said there was almost total devastation in the Oakridge Mobile Home Park.

"I can't even read the street names because the street signs are melting," Ruda said.

No deaths were reported at the park, but police Chief William Bratton said dogs would be brought in to search the rubble on Sunday to determine whether anyone perished there.

Fire officials estimated that at the peak of the Sylmar fire, 10,000 people were ordered to evacuate. However, many evacuation orders were lifted Saturday night, Fire Department spokesman Ron Haralson said. Five looting arrests were reported.

Among those who lost homes in the Sylmar fire was Linda Pogacnik, who said that after decades of driving a school bus full of noisy kids, she finally bought her dream house at "the Beverly Hills of mobile home parks."

"It had this beautiful oval bathtub, and just a few nights ago I lit candles and put on soft music and got in," she said, sighing with the memory. "The moon was full, and it made it look like the eucalyptus tree outside had little white lights."

She left with only her dogs, some clothes and a few essentials. Left behind were photography books and scrapbooking materials that she said were "going to be all I did for the rest of my life."

Northwest of Los Angeles, authorities raised the number of homes lost in a fire that began in the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito on Thursday night. County communication director William Boyer said 106 homes burned in the city of Santa Barbara and 77 burned in adjacent Montecito. He said the final total could reach 200.

The fire was 40 percent contained Saturday evening, according to city public information officer Browning Allen. Burned acreage was revised downward to 1,500 acres, or over two square miles, and that was expected to hold because of calming winds, Boyer said. At least half of the 5,400 evacuees had been allowed to return home by Saturday night.

At least 13 people were injured in that fire.

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Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, Thomas Watkins, Alicia Chang, Bob Jablon, and Christopher Weber contributed to this report.


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