California wildfires destroy hundreds of homes

A wildfire leaped through dense housing tracts in the foothills of the San Bernardino mountains, destroying more than 200 homes, threatening 1 000 others and forcing thousands of people to flee under a sky thick with smoke and tinged orange-red by flames.

Two deaths were being attributed to the fire by the San Bernardino county coroner’s office late on Saturday. The victims, both men, collapsed from stress and died—one while evacuating his home, the other while watching his house burn. Two firefighters suffered second-degree burns and were flown to a hospital.

The fire, which erupted at about 9am (4pm GMT) about 80km east of downtown Los Angeles, was propelled by fierce Santa Ana winds as it devoured 4 000ha of chaparral within hours, spreading to a 19km front.
The blaze and an even larger wildfire nearby that burned at least 10 homes on Saturday closed highways, cut off power to thousands and choked the region with heavy smoke and flaming ash.

The fires were among several major blazes in southern California, fueled by high winds, low humidity and temperatures that climbed into the mid-30s Celsius.

A new fire broke out on Saturday night just west of Crestline, near the San Bernardino fire. An evacuation was ordered, affecting hundreds of residents, said Stanton Florea, a United States Forest Service spokesperson.

The cause of the San Bernardino fire was unknown and no injuries were reported, but more than 200 homes were destroyed by Saturday night, said Robin Renteria, a San Bernardino National Forest spokesperson.

The fire moved erratically, burning down one house, then skipping two before snaring another. Firefighting helicopters flew low to drop water on houses until they were grounded as winds gusted to 64 kph.

San Bernardino police officer Frank Mankin said three people were arrested for looting homes that had been evacuated.

At a packed evacuation centre outside San Bernardino International airport, as many as 1 000 people were sheltered.

Sharon Robinson (62) and her daughter Kim Robinson (46) had their clothes and other belongings in the back of their truck.

“We’ve lived in our home for 35 years,” Sharon said. “Fire has always stopped in the foothills. I never thought it would reach our home.”

At California State University, San Bernardino, the fire damaged two temporary classrooms and a temporary fitness centre. A residence hall that houses about 1 000 students was evacuated. 

The fire closed a highway into the San Bernardino mountains and knocked out two transmission lines that provided electricity to about 28 000 customers.

Winds pushed embers ahead of the fire mass, adding to the pall of smoke from a 6 400ha fire about 19km away in the Rancho Cucamonga area.

The fire in Rancho Cucamonga jumped down a hillside into an area of $1-million homes. East-shifting winds drove flames into the nearby community of Lytle Creek, burning eight homes there.

There were 3 400 homes threatened in Rancho Cucamonga, Lytle Creek and Upland, Beckley said. The mountain community of Mt Baldy also was ordered evacuated. The arson fire was started on Tuesday and was only about 20% contained.

Since it began on Tuesday, the Rancho Cucamonga fire has destroyed 14 homes and one outbuilding. About 1 700 people had been evacuated, county sheriff’s spokesperson Sandy Fatland said.

In northern Los Angeles county, 48km from downtown Los Angeles, a fire near Santa Clarita swelled to 1 680ha and a voluntary evacuation was called for 328 homes in the nearby town of Piru.

Authorities feared that the fire might connect to a fire near Piru in Ventura County, which had charred about 500ha on Saturday. Four firefighters were injured.

At the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, 80km north of San Diego, firefighters battled a 1 880ha blaze that threatened about 300 homes in nearby De Luz. Five firefighters were injured.—Sapa-AP

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