Residents pull keepsakes from Calif. fire wreckage

Tuesday, November 18th 2008, 10:11 am
By: News 9


Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Michael Hernandez pulled a charred photo album from the wreckage of his home, the plastic pages melted by the wildfire that tore through the mobile home park where he lived with his grandparents and 7-year old daughter.

It was one of a handful of keepsakes Hernandez was able to rescue Monday during a police-escorted tour for some residents of Oakridge Mobile Home Park, a tight-knit community of manufactured homes that became a flattened field of blackened trees and twisted metal.

"We came here with a little hope and we walked around and pretty much everything's ruined," said Hernandez, a 32-year old artist who splits his time between the park and his studio in downtown Los Angeles. "I don't recognize my room."

The fire at the park was one of three in Southern California that have destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and apartments and burned 42,000 acres, or 65 square miles, forcing thousands to flee. The causes of all three were under investigation, although a human cause is suspected in a Santa Barbara County blaze.

Hundreds of other residents were expected to line up Tuesday to get a chance to walk through the Sylmar park and see the devastation for themselves.

More than 500 people made the trip on Monday but were not allowed to sift through the ruins while cadaver-sniffing dogs were still searching the area to make sure no one had died in the blaze. No bodies were found.

Residents whose homes were intact were allowed to quickly pick up clothes, toiletries, and other belongings under police escort.

Most evacuation orders were lifted in Southern California by Monday, when clear, warm weather with little wind helped firefighters make some gains.

Temperatures in the 80s were forecast Tuesday for much of the region, but wind wasn't expected to blow much harder than about 5 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

In Sylmar, the inferno destroyed 484 homes in the mobile home park Saturday when wind with hurricane intensity blew a wall of fire through the complex, setting them ablaze so quickly that even firefighters had to drop their hoses and run.

Firefighters were able to save about 120 of the homes in the park that residents described as idyllic for its mountain scenery, swimming pool, tennis courts and community spirit.

"It's a disaster. It looks like Hiroshima," said Joan Costa, whose home was spared.

Los Angeles police were still looking for residents of 166 properties who had not yet contacted authorities, urging them to confirm they are alive and well.

Elsewhere, the largest of the fires had charred more than 45 square miles of Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, destroying more than 250 homes and apartment units. Firefighters had it 60 percent surrounded. San Bernardino became the fourth county to have a state of emergency declared.

More than 150 homes were lost at Yorba Linda in Orange County.

Authorities do not believe that fire was intentionally set, thinking instead that it likely resulted from something such as exhaust from a vehicle on a freeway, David Waltemeyer, fire chief in Corona near where the blaze started Saturday morning, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.

"I want to allay fears an arsonist is out there," Waltemeyer said.

The first of the wildfires broke out in the Montecito area of Santa Barbara County, about 90 miles northwest of Sylmar. It destroyed 210 homes, many of them mansions that once had sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. It was fully contained Monday night. Officials said they believed it was "human-caused."

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said President-elect Barack Obama contacted him Sunday night to offer help. Obama has turned his campaign Web site home page into a plea to help fire victims that includes a link to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's site, where people can sign up to volunteer or donate.

Schwarzenegger on Monday asked the Bush administration to declare Southern California a federal disaster site. He also requested disaster loans for the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Santa Barbara and San Bernardino, saying many residents affected by the fires -- particularly mobile home owners -- lacked insurance or are seriously underinsured.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)