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San Clemente Fire Chars 40 Acres, Spares Homes

Times Staff Writer

A brush fire in San Clemente allegedly sparked by three teen-agers roared up canyon hillsides to within 10 feet of some expensive view homes, charring about 40 acres of dry chaparral.

No homes were damaged and no injuries reported in the first major brush fire of the season, which swept through the Boca de La Playa Canyon in west San Clemente about a mile north of the San Diego Freeway.

Three youths--one 16-year-old and two 17-year-olds--were arrested after they were spotted running from the canyon, near Calle Corral, just before the fire was reported at 3:42 p.m., a San Clemente Fire Department spokeswoman said.

About 55 firefighters from three agencies were kept busy during warm, windy weather Sunday afternoon as shovel crews, assisted by two bulldozers, plowed up the rough terrain. San Clemente firefighters, assisted by crews from the Orange County and Laguna Beach fire departments, encircled the blaze at 5:45 p.m. and had it extinguished by 7:15 p.m., San Clemente fire spokeswoman Caroline Deak said.

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All three youths, whose names were withheld because of their ages, were arrested for being in a closed hazardous fire area. They were taken to San Clemente Police Department for further questioning, Deak said.

“They had no business being there,” she added.

During questioning by police, Deak said one of the youths admitted that he accidentally started the fire when he “dropped some kind of lighting device, maybe a cigarette lighter,” and the brush caught fire, Deak said.

But San Clemente Police Sgt. Craig Hammer said the boys, who were playing in the canyon where the fire started, had been shooting tennis balls out of a can, using a combustible liquid for a propellant.

Deak said fire marshals are expected to decide early this week whether to refer charges to the Orange County district attorney’s office for prosecution. In the meantime, she said the boys would probably be released to their parents.

The blaze started in extremely steep terrain in the west end of the canyon, an area about a mile north of the San Diego Freeway between the Avenida Pico and Estrella exits.

Resident Fred Blencowe said he called the Fire Department when he saw a puff of smoke about 400 yards from his home on Calle Corral and spotted two youths running from the area.

Blencowe said he watched as the flames “just crept up” the canyon.

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The brush fire eventually threatened homes along Acantilado and Via Blanco streets, as well as 10 homes under construction on Calle Vallarta and, at one time, some occupied homes in the Forster Ranch and New Providence developments.

“The whole hillside is gone. Everything is black,” said Gerhard Zeddies, a resident in the 2800 block of Via Blanco, where the fire roared to within 10 feet of his rear property line.

Flames towered 10 to 15 feet in the air, Zeddies said, as the wind-whipped fire, fueled by dry scrub brush, sped up the steep canyon toward his backyard.

“The wind was coming right at us,” Zeddies said. “The fire took about five minutes to run a quarter of a mile. It came real quick; it was incredible how fast it went.”

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Like other hillside residents, Zeddies ran to his backyard and watered all the vegetation around his house before training the garden hose on the dry chaparral below.

Surveying the blackened acreage after the blaze had been contained, Zeddies said: “I really don’t want to look at this for the next two years.”

Anita Frederick was headed to the grocery store at about 4:30 p.m. when she first noticed the smoke and flames. “At that time, it was just a fire. There were lots of people outside staring at it and taking pictures. You could see the smoke and everything,” she said.

“When I returned, the whole hill was blackened,” said Frederick, whose home on Calle Frontera was not among those threatened.

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Jim Bankson, a neighbor of Zeddies also living on Via Blanco, said that firefighters initially did not appear very concerned about the fire’s threat to hillside homes.

“When I first saw the fire, I asked a fireman and he said it didn’t seem to be moving too close. I went back to my house. Twenty minutes later, I became concerned when heavy smoke was swept by my house,” Bankson said.

Once it was contained, a much-relieved Bankson said that although he “just got my renewal on my fire insurance and I was prepared for anything to happen,” he was “very happy” that the flames spared his and other homes in the area.

At least 75 residents tried to help firefighters battle the blaze, authorities said. One homeowner reportedly chopped down 20-foot eucalyptus trees in front of his and neighboring homes, while occupants of some threatened homes prepared to evacuate the neighborhood.

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Gary and Laurie King said that when they smelled smoke and gazed down the canyon at the fire racing toward them, they thought the worst and began packing clothes and hauling treasured items to the family car.

“I got all the valuables out, including the wedding pictures, baby clothes, everything, and put them in the car,” said Gary King, who was able to breathe a sigh of relief only after firefighters set a backfire near his home and stopped the brush fire within 35 feet of his home in the 2800 block of Acantilado.

“It just roared up the steep terrain of the canyon,” said Mike Martin, King’s neighbor.

Times staff writers Martha Steffens and Lonn Johnston contributed to this article.

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