Thousands evacuate as fires destroy California homes

Los Angeles blaze threatens at least 1,000 buildings, power lines.

california fires 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
california fires 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
A wind-blasted wildfire tore through Los Angeles' northern foothills early Saturday, sending thousands of residents fleeing in the dark, forcing a hospital to evacuate and destroying an untold number of homes. The fire broke out late Friday in the foothill community of Sylmar on the edge of the Angeles National Forest and quickly spread across 2,600 acres - more than 10.4 square kilometers - as it was driven by Santa Ana wind gusting as high as 122 kph. Dozens of homes were destroyed, officials said, and aerial footage from television helicopters showed rows of houses gutted in just in one subdivision. Fire crews had to abandon a mobile home park that was burning out of control. The park had 600 spaces for homes. "We have almost total devastation here in the mobile park," Los Angeles Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said of the Oakridge Mobile Home Park. "I can't even read the street names because the street signs are melting." At an evacuation center, Oakridge resident Wendy Vannenberg said the park had about 600 residences, many of them housing senior citizens. The same park had been evacuated during a fire last month. "Last time I took all of my grandparents' things. They had brought over them from Germany after World War II," said Vannenberg, 46. "This time, I didn't really grab anything. I don't know why." Part of the area's network of highways was shut down. Officials ordered huge evacuations in the Sylmar, Knollwood and Porter Ranch communities as the fire jumped two freeways, closing the highways and forcing evacuees to take surface streets. "Near hurricane winds made it very difficult for firefighters," Los Angeles Fire deputy chief Mario Rueda said. To the west, firefighters were still battling a separate wildfire that destroyed more than 110 homes in Santa Barbara. The Los Angeles blaze threatened at least 1,000 buildings, fire spokeswoman Melissa Kelley said. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the fire brought down some power lines and could cause rolling blackouts. He urged residents throughout the city to conserve power. One resident was hospitalized in serious condition with burns over 60 percent of his body, Kelley said. Two firefighters were treated for minor injuries. Flames struck the edge of the Olive View-UCLA Medical Center campus shortly after midnight, causing an electricity outage that forced officials to evacuate two dozen critical patients. About 200 other patients stayed behind. Several administrative buildings were damaged. The hospital's power and backup generators failed, and emergency room staff had to keep critical patients alive with hand powered ventilators. Twenty-eight people, including 10 neonatal babies, were rushed out by ambulance to another hospital. "It was totally dark." said hospital spokeswoman Carla Nino. "There was dense smoke." Power was restored at the hospital after three hours. Some people refused to leave, grabbing water hoses to defend their homes, but others left even before mandatory evacuation orders were issued. More than 600 firefighters struggled to protect homes threatened by flying embers. Because of the rough terrain in the forest, they were relying on water-dropping helicopters to tackle flames. Authorities said some aircraft were grounded during the night by the savage wind, but they expected six airplanes and a dozen helicopters to attack the fire during the day. The shifting wind pushed the fire uphill toward the San Gabriel Mountains and downhill toward homes, sometimes skipping across canyons. It also jumped Interstate 5 and the 210 Freeway, forcing the California Highway Patrol to shut down sections of both freeways and some connecting roads. Flying embers ignited sporadic spot fires and firefighters were patrolling the evacuated neighborhoods "making sure these small fires don't turn into big fires," Rueda said. If the fire continues marching west, it could be slowed by a fire break that resulted from a wildfire which burned about 14,000 acres near Porter Ranch last month, authorities said. The cause of the fire was under investigation. The blaze also charred habitat for the endangered California condor and several hiking trails, US Forest Service spokesman Stanton Florea said. About 130 kilometers to the west, an uncontained blaze in the Santa Barbara community of Montecito had forced the evacuation of more than 5,400 homes since it started Thursday night, exploding through dry brush and vast stands of oil-rich eucalyptus trees. About 800 firefighters were battling the fire at the wealthy, celebrity-studded enclave, and they were expected to make significant progress through Saturday morning, said Santa Barbara city fire spokesman John Ahlman. "There's plenty of hot material still left out there," he said. "But things could change in a hurry if the winds pick up." Several multimillion-dollar homes and a small college suffered major damage in Montecito, a quaint and secluded area that has attracted celebrities such as Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas and Oprah Winfrey. The fire quickly consumed rows of luxury homes and parts of Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts school, where students spent the night in a gymnasium shelter. "That whole mountain over there went up at once. Boom," said Bob McNall, 70, who with his son and grandson saved their home by hosing it down. "The whole sky was full of embers. There was nothing that they could do. It was just too much." Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum said up to 200 homes may have been destroyed or damaged. The cause of the fire is under investigation. At least 13 people were injured in Montecito. A 98-year-old man with multiple medical problems died after being evacuated, but it was unclear if his death was directly related to the blaze, Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said. Lowe, the actor, said he fled with his children as fire engulfed the mountain, though their home did not burn. The family found neighbors trapped behind their automatic car gate, which was stuck because the power was out. Lowe said he helped open the big gates. "Embers were falling. Wind was 113 kilometers an hour, easily, and it was just like Armageddon," Lowe told KABC-TV. "You couldn't hear yourself think." Montecito, known for its balmy climate and charming Spanish colonial homes, has long attracted celebrities. The landmark Montecito Inn was built in the 1920s by Charlie Chaplin, and the nearby San Ysidro Ranch was the honeymoon site of John F. Kennedy in 1953. Montecito suffered a major fire in 1977, when more than 200 homes burned. A fire in 1964 burned about 67,000 acres and damaged 150 houses and buildings.