47 Houses Lost in Fire at San Diego : Damage Estimated at $5.3 Million as Hundreds Flee; Other Areas Hit

Times Staff Writers

At least 47 homes were destroyed and four others heavily damaged Sunday as fire burst out of a steep, brush-filled canyon in the Normal Heights district eight miles northeast of downtown San Diego, forcing hundreds of residents to flee.

Damage was officially estimated by the county Emergency Management Office at more than $5.3 million, but was expected to climb. By 8:30 p.m., fire officials said the blaze was 95% contained with full control not expected before dawn.

San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock toured the 290-acre area of the blaze, called it the most destructive in the city's history, and asked Gov. George Deukmejian to declare Normal Heights a disaster area.

Winds Pose Problem

Firefighters fought erratic winds, low humidity and difficult terrain to contain the flames in temperatures that soared over the 100-degree mark in the afternoon.

There were no deaths and injuries were said to be minor. Several firefighters and residents who stayed and tried to fight the flames were treated at the scene for heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation, first- and second-degree burns and eye irritation.

Ambulances took at least five people to hospitals. These included two infants suffering from smoke inhalation, authorities said.

The toll of misery and destruction mounted as night fell, reducing the winds that had fueled the flames but adding confusion and fear to the plight of those who had been driven from their homes.

Many of the evacuees were elderly, and were in house coats and slippers as they fled from the houses where some of them had lived for nearly half a century. A number of the evacuees were taken in by friends outside the threatened area; others went to an emergency shelter set up by the Red Cross.

By late evening, police and sheriff's helicopters were still in the area, hovering amid hot embers, wind and smoke, using loudspeakers to warn residents below of the spreading fire--and asking them not to add to the problem by trying to battle the flames themselves.

"One of our biggest difficulties," said San Diego Fire Department spokesman Larry Stewart, "is homeowners who try to save their houses with a garden hose. It isn't effective against a fire like this, and it lowers water pressure at just the moment when that pressure is vitally needed."

The San Diego blaze was the most damaging--but by no means the largest--of several fires that spread across Southern California, fanned by hot, dry winds.

In the Palm Springs area, a 10,000-acre forest fire, burning out of control for the fourth day, closed to within a mile of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway as firefighters set backfires from the parking lot of the popular tourist attraction.

Two fires lanced through the hills near the Ventura-Los Angeles County line, burning 600 acres in the Lake Sherwood area, two miles from Westlake Village.

And four small fires broke out in the West Hollywood area, where fire officials said they suspected that an arsonist may have been at work.

The fire that devastated the handsome, older San Diego neighborhood of Normal Heights began about noon in the bottom of a canyon near West Mountain View Heights at the intersection of Interstates 8 and 805. Within minutes, witnesses said, the wind had pushed it over the rim of the hill--and into nearby homes.

Fire officials Sunday night were still trying to determine the cause of the blaze. By the time the first fire trucks arrived at 11:54 a.m., the flames had already leaped out the canyon and engulfed several homes.

Authorities said the nature of Normal Heights itself--a community of homes on the plateau overlooking Mission Valley, southeast of the crossing of the I-8 and I-805 freeways--made the blaze more difficult to fight.

The plateau is broken by several smaller canyon fingers with steep walls that "acted like a chimney" for the flames, one official said. The homes, many of which are 40 years old and have combustible shake shingle roofs, are particularly vulnerable to fire, officials said.

For a time in early afternoon, flames were seen to be jumping from canyon to canyon, and even on the rare occasions when the wind died, there was no respite. The fire was hot enough to generate its own wind.

"It feeds on itself," said San Diego Fire Capt. Larry Carlson. "As the fire goes up a hill, the steeper the hill is, the faster it can go.

"The faster it goes, the more heat it generates and it dries the brush in front of it. Soon the area in front is preheated and the fire explodes up the hill--generating its own wind that swirls and sucks it up the hill."

By early afternoon, more than 500 firefighters were on the line, some from as far away as Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Two air tankers from Ventura County made six passes over the fire, dumping thousands of gallons of a chemical fire retardant in the canyons.

But it continued to burn in isolated canyons.

Guard Against Looting

More than 150 policemen were called out to cordon off the area and prevent looting, but there were no reports of vandalism in the area.

The Red Cross set up an evacuation center at the Normal Heights United Methodist Church, and more than 100 residents of the threatened area registered there during the afternoon. More straggled in as night fell.

One of the evacuees was David Matterson, 60, who said he had only enough time to grab his Bible and a few bits of jewelry before the fire engulfed the Panama Place home he had lived in for 50 years.

"I got my dogs out. I got the family Bible out. I got myself out. This isn't the end of the world--the Lord is with me," he said.

But not everyone was willing to leave.

"I'm staying here," said longtime Normal Heights resident Paul Formicola. "They can't move me. They can't do it."

But he did leave. Formicola tried to save his home with spray from a garden hose, but gave up when water pressure dropped.

"Did my best. Time to go," he said as he drove away.

Anthony Bernardini, 23, was more fortunate.

Despite evacuation warnings, he stayed at his parents' home on North Mountain View Road, fought the fire with his own and neighbors' garden hoses--and won. The flames scorched the front yard and even charred the burlap welcome mat at the front door. But that was as far as it got.

Other Areas Affected

Elsewhere, other fires created other problems.

A second San Diego County fire swept across 2,500 acres, burning several ranching sheds, but no inhabited structures, about 15 miles east of the city near Mt. Miguel, where three San Diego television stations have transmitters. All three stations were forced to turn off power because of the flames, a California Department of Forestry spokeswoman said.

The Humane Society was summoned to evacuate livestock, and the fire burned into the night, uncontained, fought by 21 engine crews and four helicopters.

In Riverside County, the largest of the state's fires raged into its fourth day in the San Jacinto Mountains outside Palm Springs, where more than 1,200 firefighters were deployed to face a blaze that had consumed nearly 20,000 acres of brushland by Sunday night.

Flames were within a mile of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The U.S. Forest Service closed the tram Saturday and evacuated 400 campers.

There was concern for the tramway's upper station, a three-story building housing machinery and a restaurant but the Forest Service said the mountain station is in no danger yet.

A California Department of Forestry spokesman said the fire was only 10% contained.

Other fires broke out in the Los Angeles area.

In West Hollywood, four fires began within a short distance of each other in the afternoon, and Fire Department officials said the timing and proximity raised suspicions of arson. One man was released after questioning.

The largest of these fires raced up a hill and burned 25 acres at Fairfax Avenue and Fareholm Drive, threatening six homes before firefighters extinguished the blaze.

"It covered the whole hill in no time at all," said Maggie Miller, who lives within feet of the hillside.

The fourth and last fire of the afternoon broke out near Franklin Avenue and North Vista Place in the Hollywood Hills and burned for 40 minutes, charring four acres of grass and brush before being brought under control.

Jeff Goldstein commented as he hosed down embers near his home: "I'm from New York--I don't know from brush fires in the middle of the city."

Northwest of Los Angeles, a 1,500-acre fire burned through Carlisle Canyon near Lake Sherwood, fought by 400 firefighters from 55 engine companies from the Los Angeles and Ventura County Fire Departments, backed by seven airplanes and seven helicopters dropping chemicals.

One mobile home was reported destroyed but no other houses were believed to have been damaged though several families were forced from their homes in the semi-rural area. The fire threatened small ranches but stopped when the flames reached an area cleared by a backfire.

An animal rescue group braved the flames to load three horses onto a trailer, as residents took to their rooftops with garden hoses and trash cans filled with water to battle wind-borne embers and sparks.

A fire on South Mountain Road west of Texaco Canyon and about five miles east of Santa Paula burned through more than 70 acres and was advancing toward an area of citrus ranches and oil fields, the Ventura County Fire Department reported.

Both Ventura County fires remained out of control Sunday night.

In Sequoia National Forest, the Kern County Fire Department announced it had contained an 8,700-acre fire that began Friday and spread to within 10 miles of Bakersfield. The blaze was contained at 6 a.m. Sunday and was expected to be controlled by 6 a.m. today.

The fire was ignited by sparks from a metal grinder near the Ridgebar campground, officials said.

Another brush fire erupted Saturday between the city of San Luis Obispo and Camp San Luis Obispo, a National Guard base. It was fought by 125 firefighters, three air tankers and a helicopter. It burned about 250 acres, coming within 200 yards of a cluster of ranch houses, before it was controlled Sunday.

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Edward J. Boyer, Mathis Chazanov, Philipp Gollner, Daryl Kelley, Penelope McMillan, Robert Schwartz, Doug Smith, Ronald L. Soble and Anne Valdespino in Los Angeles, and Kathleen H. Cooley, Marilee Enge, Scott Harris, Greg Johnson, Marjorie Miller, Lorena Oropeza and Nancy Reed in San Diego.

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