"We have not been able to pinpoint exactly where the fires are," said Orange County Fire Authority spokesperson Christy Romero. "There are many spot fires; the fire is not in one general direction."
"The embers are falling miles ahead of the fire front," said Battalion Chief Chris Concepcion of the Orange County Fire Authority. "That's what is creating a lot of the problems." Dubbed the Freeway Complex blaze, the firestorm had consumed about 2,000 acres by evening, damaged or destroyed at least 88 homes. Structures also were damaged at Brea Canyon High School.
More than 4,500 homes were evacuated, with 300 people staying at an emergency shelter at Katella High School. It was the third evacuation center set up after two others had to be abandoned because of smoke and approaching flames.
"We were running underneath fire," said Lene Vrieling, 23, describing her flight from the Cascades Apartments near Anaheim Hills, to which she had moved with her mother and sisters two weeks ago. "The branches and ashes were falling on us. My mom almost got trapped."
At the apartment development, where at least three large buildings were destroyed, one resident wearing flip flops huffed as he emerged from dense smoke. "I gotta get my dog out," he said, before vanishing back into smoke.
A short distance away, as the setting sun hung on the blackened skyline, Mary Palmer and her husband Gene were trying to get to her daughter's wedding. The couple had been in Long Beach getting their hair done when they heard about the fire.
They were told they couldn't drive back to their Yorba Linda home, so they parked in Anaheim Hills and walked two miles to dress for the ceremony. Then they hiked back to their car; she in a black dress and six-inch heels, he in a suit and tie. Mary Palmer's hair was undone, tossed about in the gusting wind as they trudged past burning palm trees.
"I'll never forget this," she said. "I don't know what I'll look like or smell like when I get there. But I'm a fan of Lucille Ball, and this is so Lucy."
In addition to the 91 Freeway, the fire had shut down parts of the 241 tollway, where there were reports that some motorists had abandoned vehicles to escape thick smoke.
A separate fire closed part of the 57 Freeway near Brea, where homes also were reported destroyed. About 1,200 acres had been scorched in Orange County by late afternoon and towers of smoke and ash spread as far away as Long Beach. The losses in Anaheim Hills were still being tallied, but earlier, 14 homes were listed as destroyed or damaged in Corona and at least 30 had burned in Yorba Linda.
Meanwhile, firefighters were still battling a massive fire in the northern San Fernando Valley, which prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles County. Police announced this evening that they had arrested several suspected looters in the area and warned they were heavily patrolling burned and evacuated neighborhoods.
The greatest damage in the Valley was reported in the Oakridge Mobile Home Park near Sylmar, where more than 500 homes were destroyed in the so-called Sayre blaze that started late Friday. The Los Angeles Police Department sealed off the community and declared it a potential crime scene. Investigators were conducting a systematic search of the gutted homes, which were evacuated by police and firefighters just ahead of flames.
"We feel pretty comfortable that LAPD and fire were able to get everyone out," Ed Winter, assistant director of the Coroner's Office said this evening. Among those who lost everything at the mobile home park were Linda Pogacnik, 63, and Nodonda Baldwin, 56, retired Los Angeles Unified School District bus drivers who pooled their savings to buy a 1,500-square-foot mobile home.
Crying uncontrollably at a Sylmar High School shelter, Pogacnik said, "My street -- ashes. . . . It was a dream. We had a view, trees, a yard and neighbors. We felt so safe there. It was a perfect place for an old retired woman."
The evacuees at Sylmar High were among 10,000 residents ordered from their homes as more than 1,000 firefighters used water-dropping helicopters, bulldozers and engines from across Southern California to try to halt the erratic march of the blaze as it hopscotched west and south toward thousands of homes.
That fire more than doubled in size today to 6,500 acres, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at an early-afternoon briefing. "We've never lost in recent times anything close to this number" of homes, he said, referring to the mobile homes. The fire was 20% contained; officials hoped that the advance of the blaze into the previously burned area of last month's Sesnon fire would allow firefighters to get the upper hand.
But Los Angeles Deputy Fire Chief Mario Rueda added, "These are still very dangerous winds."