2 New Ojai Fires Erupt; Arson Seen : Body of Third Victim Discovered in Baldwin Hills

Times Staff Writers

At least two new fires believed set by an arsonist erupted near beleaguered Ojai on Wednesday only hours after firefighters made a dramatic stand to save the Ventura County town from being engulfed by a leaping wall of flame.

Officials feared late Wednesday that the flames could sweep all the way to the ocean.

In the meantime, searchers found a third body--that of a woman--in the charred ruins of the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Southwest Los Angeles, where a murderous arson fire flashed up a brushy hillside on Tuesday to destroy 48 homes, damage numerous others and leave more than 300 people homeless.

Police and firefighters had been looking for Marie Gladden, 62, who lived alone at 4226 Don Carlos Drive in the sector of worst destruction. Her son, Robert Gladden, is a Los Angeles firefighter who helped to battle the flames.

Murder Investigations

Earlier as many as six persons were unaccounted for, but by evening, Mrs. Gladden was the only one being sought, a Fire Department spokesman said.

The discovery by firefighters of the body of a woman, apparently fully clothed and covered by a mountain of debris in a bathtub of a home next door to Mrs. Gladden's, was announced by Lt. Dan Cooke of the Los Angeles Police Department, which is investigating the three deaths as murders.

"Apparently she had tried to take refuge in the bathtub and filled it with water," Cooke said.

The body was not immediately identified.

To the north, a new fire of suspicious origin began southeast of Ojai near Black Mountain about 3 p.m., prompting Ventura County Sheriff John Gillespie to say there was "not much doubt" that the fire was set by an arsonist.

'Someone Is Out There'

"Our major concern now is that someone is out there setting some of these fires," he said.

Gillespie noted that four or five blazes had begun during the last two days and that the potential of the combined blazes in that area was well over 100,000 acres. He said the fire could burn along California 150 past Lake Casitas to Carpinteria, "depending on the wind."

Some homes were evacuated east of Soule County Park and in the Dennison Park area southeast of Ojai.

Norm Scott, U.S. Forest Service spokesman, said Wednesday evening that although most of the fire was still in the Ojai area, "it's so dry and hot, it's running as it wants to."

By evening, the main fire, which began at Wheeler Springs and was turned back on itself early Wednesday morning in a dramatic stand by firefighters at the north edge of the town of Ojai, had grown to more than 38,000 acres and had leaped California 150 and was moving on three fronts toward Dennison Grade on the east side of Ojai.

A third fire, also believed to have been deliberately set, erupted late Wednesday just north of Santa Paula in the Mupu area, where residents were being evacuated. A school was reported destroyed in that blaze.

There was new trouble from the main fire, specifically along the front in the Matilija Canyon area northwest of Ojai. Three or four cabins were reported lost there, and residents were evacuated late in the day for the second time in two days.

In all, more than 100,000 acres of brushland had been blackened statewide in more than 20 fires since last weekend. About a dozen major blazes were still burning Wednesday.

In human terms, the fire that roared through the Baldwin Hills neighborhood was by far the most devastating, killing three, injuring at least 10 others and leaving more than 300 people homeless.

The two known fatalities were identified as Mary Street, 77, and Robert Allen, 55, both of 4217 Don Carlos Drive. Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Vince Marzo said they apparently fled to a neighboring house at 4259 Don Carlos as theirs was one of the first to burn.

Other fire officials said they probably died after an unidentified Florida motorist stopped to try to pull them from the home before he was forced by the fierce heat to flee.

Ironically, Marzo said, the couple were probably trapped inside that home when it caught fire because the windows were covered by anti-burglar bars and they became confused in the smoke and heat, Marzo said.

Revised figures from the Los Angeles Fire Department showed that besides the homes destroyed, 18 were damaged, with the total loss estimated at more than $16 million.

"It's a very, very sad sight," Gov. George Deukmejian said after a helicopter flight over the once-handsome Baldwin Hills neighborhood. He officially declared all of Los Angeles County an emergency area, a step toward obtaining federal aid for disaster victims.

Police spokesman Cooke said arson investigators recovered several "incendiary devices" in the seared brush along La Brea Avenue about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. Investigators said the devices "definitely" had been used to deliberately start the fire.

Cooke said the devices apparently were thrown into the brush from a slow-moving car about 2:40 p.m. Tuesday, just before the firestorm surged up the chaparal-covered slopes and into the community. He said there were at least two people in the car, but he provided no other information.

Fire officials declined to elaborate, saying that further details were being withheld for use in questioning any suspects.

As of Wednesday evening, investigators said they had no suspects and knew of no motive for the arson attack.

City Fire Chief Donald O. Manning blamed the rapid spread of the fire on "the very explosive fuel" provided by hillside brush that had been baked dry by three straight days of high temperatures.

"The houses also were dried out, ready to burn," he said. "The shake roofs were a big factor.

"I've been with the department 32 years," Manning said, "and I'm as worried as I've ever been. It's a very volatile situation (in general.) Sixty percent of the brush is dead. That is a very high ratio."

He said that when brush is that dry, "it will burn as fast in still air as it normally will in a 25 m.p.h. wind."

City officials disclosed Wednesday that part of the hillside on which the Baldwin Hills fire broke out apparently had not been cleared of weeds, as required by weed-abatement regulations. That part is owned by Pepperdine University.

The director of street maintenance for Los Angeles, Edward Longley, said Pepperdine had been warned twice in the last three months to cut a 10-foot path between the weeds and the roadside. Within the last couple of weeks, Longley said, Pepperdine officials agreed to comply with the city's order by July 8.

Pepperdine spokesman Larry Bumgardner said that, according to his "best information," the university received only one recent warning to clear out the weeds. Since then, he said, "we were in the process of preparing to comply."

Bumgardner also contended that the fire did not actually start on the university's property, although he was unable to say where he got that information.

Disclosures that the property had not been properly cleared of weeds prompted calls by several City Council members Wednesday to toughen the weed-abatement law and broaden the city's compliance efforts.

Currently, owners of vacant property are given two notices before the city clears the weeds, charging the cost to the owners.

'Get Their Attention'

Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores said property owners who violate the weed-abatement law should be fined.

"The only way you can get their attention is to fine them," she said. "There's always a rash of new proposals when you have a disaster like this. . . . But how much better if we could prepare those ordinances and those laws and get people to comply in advance so we would not have to be facing the kind of sad circumstances that we are today."

In the aftermath of the Baldwin Hills blaze, several residents who lost their homes complained about what they described as the Fire Department's slow and inadequate response to the fast-spreading flames.

Typical among them was Howard Russell, 62, a 16-year resident of Don Carlos Drive.

"All that came was one truck, one fire truck on the entire street," Russell contended, adding that the city responds more forcefully to "prostitutes on Hollywood and Vine."

On Wednesday, however, Manning defended his department's actions before the City Council.

"I am convinced," he said, "that the city's response to this fire was on the highest level possible."

One-Third of Force

The chief said fire trucks arrived "very, very quickly"--and in force. About a third of the city's firefighting capacity was pressed into action, he said.

After Manning had concluded his remarks, the council posted a $25,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the suspected arsonists.

At least four Baldwin Hills residents were hospitalized with burns. Four firefighters and two police officers were treated for minor injuries.

Police sealed off the area as firefighters knocked down the blaze Tuesday evening, but despite the smoke, heat and the lack of electricity and gas, many of the residents whose homes were not destroyed elected to remain in the fire area overnight.

Their less fortunate neighbors returned at dawn to begin rummaging through the debris of lost homes for jewelry, silverware, family photographs--anything of value that might have survived the flames.

Utilities Restore Service

Firefighters hosed down the last of the smoldering embers as utility crews moved in to seal off ruptured gas lines, repair downed power and telephone lines and restore service wherever possible.

After his stop in Baldwin Hills, Deukmejian left to tour other fire areas in Ventura, San Diego and San Luis Obispo counties.

Major fires still burned out of control in the rugged canyons near the town of De Luz in northern San Diego County, in Santa Ana Canyon near the Riverside-Orange County line and in several other locations.

In San Diego County, more than 1,000 firefighters worked to control or mop up fires that had consumed more than 22,000 acres and caused the evacuation of hundreds of residents.

The De Luz blaze, which was started Monday by exploding ammunition at Camp Pendleton, had burned 15,000 acres, destroyed two homes, a nursery and several acres of avocado groves. Fire officials hoped to have it contained by late Friay.

A new blaze broke out Wednesday two miles east of Lakeside--northeast of the city of San Diego--threatening several homes.

A fire that had burned about 500 acres and six homes in the Deer Springs Road area north of Escondido was 90% contained.

Plane Ignites Blaze

In Orange County, about 750 acres of Santa Ana Canyon brush had been burned by a fire that started when a light plane crashed into a truck on a freeway after the advertising banner it was towing caught in power lines. The fire was about 40% contained, with full containment expected by late Wednesday night.

The pilot and co-pilot of that plane died in the crash. They were identified Wednesday as James Elred Atkins, 31, of Covina and Richard Alan Gonsalves, 38, of Burbank.

In southern Orange County, flames continued to move unchecked through about 60 acres of rugged brushland on both sides of Ortega Highway, which runs from San Juan Capistrano to Lake Elsinore. The Ortega Oaks campground and candy store were briefly threatened on Tuesday, but by Wednesday no structures appeared to be in the path of the fire.

The Santa Margarita Lake fire in San Luis Obispo County had burned about 12,500 acres but was about 75% controlled on Wednesday after destroying three houses, a barn and a cabin.

Carlisle Canyon Fire

Also nearing full containment was the Carlisle Canyon fire that burned 3,800 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

Two brush fires raged in Monterey County in Northern California--one in the southeastern part of the county, where 1,800 acres were burned, and another 35 miles south of Salinas, where 400 acres had burned.

Controlled or contained Wednesday were several other big blazes, including the 26,600-acre Cabazon fire near Palm Springs.

Times staff writers Jerry Belcher, Leonard Greenwood, David Holley and Joel Sappell in Los Angeles; Miles Corwin and Boris Yaro in Ojai; Kim Murphy in Orange County and Scott Harris and Michele L. Norris in San Diego County contributed to this story.

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