/ 16 November 2008

Hundreds of homes destroyed in California firestorm

Fires whipped up by hot, gusty and erratic winds darkened Los Angeles skies on Saturday, scorching thousands of hectares and hundreds of homes in the second-largest US city.

More than 10 000 people were ordered to evacuate as a fire that exploded overnight on the edge of the Angeles National Forest, north of Los Angeles, barreled into the San Fernando Valley and burned more than 3 237 hectares.

Los Angeles County Fire Department officials said one-fifth of the fire had been contained by Saturday evening, and were optimistic about reining it in as long as the winds didn’t pick up again.

Meanwhile, another fire that flared south-east of Los Angeles in Orange and Riverside counties on Saturday morning, charred 809 hectares in the communities of Yorba Linda, Brea, Anaheim and Corona, and destroyed 104 homes, including apartments and single-family houses.

In the city of Anaheim alone, 12 600 people were ordered to evacuate, a spokesperson said.

The dry Santa Ana winds sweeping in from the desert fanned the fire in the foothills near Sylmar north-west of Los Angeles that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said had destroyed more homes than any other fire in the past decade.

”We’re at the mercy of the wind. Mother Nature’s not been too good to us for the last 15 hours,” he said.

The Sylmar fire raged on both sides of Interstate 5, the main freeway connecting Los Angeles with the north.

Two of the five major transmission lines that supply power to the Los Angeles area were taken down because of damage to a converting station, and a third power line was damaged by heat. Natural gas and power lines were also threatened in Orange and Riverside counties.

Firefighters also continued to battle the two-day-old blaze in the celebrity enclave of Montecito, further up the coast near Santa Barbara, where 210 homes have been destroyed. The fire was about 60% contained, a spokesperson said.

”When you walk around the areas that were devastated, it looked like hell today,” California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told a news conference.

Police closed down Interstate 5 and other roads as 1 100 firefighters mobilised to fight the Sylmar fire. Only about 10% of the fire had been contained, Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesperson Ron Haralson said on Saturday afternoon.

Mountains were engulfed in flames and dense clouds of greyish-brown smoke. Soot hung in the air, which was heavy with the smell of burning wood. Winds blowing at a steady gale-force 56km/h periodically gusted up to 120km/h, helping spread the fire.

Mobile homes destroyed
The greatest damage was reported in the Oakridge Mobile Home Park, where the fire burned about 500 houses to the ground. About 300 people, many of them Oakridge residents who fled their homes during the night, gathered in Sylmar High School, where the American Red Cross set up relief services.

”You could see absolutely nothing,” said Jackie Burns (77) who, along with her husband, Len, fled their home at 3am as the fire raged through the neighbourhood. ”It was like looking into a black hole. It looked like the end of the world to me.”

Some evacuees sobbed as a firefighter brought in a singed and tattered flag rescued from atop one of the houses.

”It was an absolute firestorm,” said Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Steve Ruda. ”Firefighters were braving 50-foot flame lengths as they swept across the mobile homes.” Heat from the flames melted firefighters’ hoses to the pavement, he added.

An additional 24 homes and 10 commercial structures have been damaged or destroyed. At least 5 000 more structures have been threatened, Schwarzenegger said.

California’s fire season, which traditionally starts in June, has been lengthening and getting worse as the dry state adds homes in fringe areas prone to flames.

”California has fires year round,” said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, at the conference. ”There really is no fire season in California any longer.”

Los Angeles County, home to nearly 10-million people, has been largely spared damage this year. In October of last year 30 blazes raged across Southern California, forcing evacuation of more than 500 000 people and damaging about 2 000 homes.

Marie Larsen (70) another evacuee who took refuge at the Sylmar school, said she grabbed her suitcase — still packed from a month ago when she fled her home during the Sesnon fire — and left after police officers banged on her door. – Reuters