Strong winds hamper firefighting efforts in California

Sunday, November 16th 2008, 8:36 am
By: News 9

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Wildfires driven by hurricane-strength winds tore through Southern California on Saturday for the second day in a row, destroying hundreds of homes, displacing thousands of people and forcing freeway closures and rotating blackouts.

More high winds Saturday night could continue to hamper efforts to contain at least four fires in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Orange counties, officials said.

More than 10,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in the northern San Fernando Valley, and 8,000 acres of land have been scorched by the Sayre fire since it began Friday night. Five firefighters have received minor injuries.

The brush-fueled Sayre fire erupted late Friday in the steep terrain of the Angeles National Forest on the outskirts of Sylmar, about 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. It is named for the street where it was first spotted.

As of Saturday evening, fire officials said, about 20 percent of the fire had been contained.

Wind gusts up to 80 mph combined with low humidity and unseasonably high temperatures fueled the fires.

At least 5,000 residents of Sylmar were ordered to flee early Saturday. Since then, at least 500 mobile homes at the Oakridge Mobile Home Park near Sylmar and 165 homes were destroyed and at least 1,000 more were threatened.

Authorities said it's too soon to tell whether anyone was killed at the Oakridge Mobile Home Park. Police and fire personnel worked to drag one elderly woman from the park as flames were tearing into it, according to L.A. Police Chief William Bratton.

Deputy Police Chief Michael Moore said that extreme heat and other dangers have made it impossible for search-and-rescue teams to work their way through the mobile home park. They plan to investigate Sunday, he said.

Augustine Reyes and his family left their home in Sylmar about 2 a.m. Saturday when they could no longer stand the oppressive heat and smoke encroaching from the hills behind their home.

When Reyes returned to survey the scene Saturday afternoon, all that remained were heaps of charred rubble.

Reyes dabbed his eyes with a bandana as he worried over how to describe the loss to his 7-year-old son.

"He's autistic and doesn't do well with change, so this is going to be very hard to explain to him," Reyes said.

The raging wildfires were moving ½ mph to 1 mph, said Los Angeles Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Mario Rueda, forcing the closures of most freeways in the valley, including Interstates 5, 405 and 210.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Los Angeles County on Saturday afternoon, one day after he made the same move in nearby Santa Barbara County.

By Saturday afternoon, the Tea fire, named after its suspected place of origin in Santa Barbara County, was about 40 percent contained after destroying more than 100 homes and burning 1,800 acres since Thursday in the upscale community of Montecito.

A 98-year-old man with pre-existing medical problems who was evacuated to a hotel died Friday, though medical officials said it may be impossible to determine whether the move caused his death.

South of Los Angeles, a brush fire that began in Corona has moved into Yorba Linda, destroying at least 265 apartments and homes and scorching 800 to 1,000 acres, according to CNN affiliate KTLA.

The blaze started about 9 a.m. north of California Highway 91 in Corona. Strong and erratic winds quickly fanned to flames, initiating the evacuations of at least 14,000 people from the area and engulfing entire apartment buildings in flames, KTLA reported.

A second fire is also making its way through Orange County.

In Los Angeles, Villaraigosa declared a city emergency early Saturday morning and called for the public's cooperation in conserving energy as potential blackouts loomed.

The fire threatened high-voltage transmission lines along southern California's Interstate 5, causing the utility company that serves Los Angeles to orchestrate rotating power outages in some districts for nearly an hour Saturday.

The I-5 corridor through Sylmar is a major utility corridor carrying power to the city's Department of Water and Power and other utilities from plants in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest.

"The LADWP turned off these lines to ensure the safety of firefighters and the public," the utility said on its Web site. Power was turned off to the Mid-City, Crenshaw and Harbor Gateway neighborhoods for 45 minutes.

The Sayre fire jumped I-5 Saturday as it headed west toward areas burned last month by the Sesnon fire in Porter Ranch.

By Saturday afternoon, people were taking refuge in evacuation shelters set up in three high schools in the area, officials said.

Horses and other large animals were being taken to a makeshift shelter in Hansen Dam Park. A mobile kennel was set up at Sylmar High School, and small pets can be taken to the Mission animal shelter.

Residents in the Granada Hills and Puerto Ranch communities were among those ordered to leave their homes Saturday, said Deputy Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore.

"This fire is moving so quickly that they can't wait," Moore said, warning residents not to wait until they see flames to get out.

John Tripp of the Los Angeles County Fire Department said his department was contributing bulldozers, hand crews and water-dropping helicopters to the firefighting effort. A dozen helicopters and six fixed-wing planes were to be available by Sunday morning, he said.

Tripp said firefighters were trying to stay in front of the fire and create control lines, especially to keep it from spreading farther north toward Santa Clarita. Twenty-five strike teams, equal to 125 engines, were being used, he said.