139 Homes Destroyed as Fires Erupt Across the Southland : Disaster: At least 100 residences are razed in Santa Barbara. Total could reach 300. Glendale is also hard hit. Brea residents flee Carbon Canyon blaze that blackens over 3,500 acres, leaves 6 homes in ashes.
More than 100 expensive homes were destroyed here and at least 37 people were injured as a swarm of fast-moving fires, at least three deliberately set, exploded across tinder-dry Southern California on Wednesday.
Flames fed by prolonged drought conditions and record-high temperatures hit communities from here to Orange County to San Diego, destroying at least 139 homes, forcing evacuation of hundreds of residents, leaving several firefighters injured and closing two major freeways.
In Orange County, a fire apparently started by a transient in the hills of Carbon Canyon near Brea raced across the county line and destroyed at least six homes in San Bernardino County. By late Wednesday night, the blaze had blackened more than 3,500 acres in the two counties.
Several hundred residents of the San Bernardino County community of Chino Hills were forced into emergency shelters. Some homes were briefly threatened in Orange County, prompting some Brea residents to voluntarily pack their belongings and flee. But no homes in Orange County were destroyed, officials said.
Brea police arrested Peter Diaz Reyes, a 29-year-old transient, on suspicion of felony arson shortly after the fire was started about 11 a.m. near Carbon Canyon Regional Park. (Story, Page 26)
In other areas of the Southland, fires brought the realization of residents’ worst nightmares:
An arson fire raced through the affluent Glendale hills, destroying 18 homes, damaging 16 others and causing $25 million in damage before it was contained at 8 p.m., officials said.
And late Wednesday, a controlled burn by the U.S. Forest Service erupted into an inferno in the Cleveland National Forest of Riverside County, destroying 15 homes in the Temescal Canyon area near Corona. The blaze also forced closure of Interstate 15 in El Cerrito, said California Division of Forestry spokeswoman Jeaneen Gardner.
Record-shattering triple-digit temperatures combined with the fourth year of drought conditions set the stage for Wednesday’s infernos.
The mercury soared to 106 degrees in Fullerton and 104 in Anaheim and San Juan Capistrano. Temperatures hit 109 at Los Angeles’ Civic Center Wednesday, shattering a record for the second straight day. The 112 degrees recorded Tuesday was the hottest day on record in the city’s history.
The Santa Barbara fire was started by an arsonist near California 154 and Painted Cave Road in the Park Highlands area, northeast of the city.
Authorities in Santa Barbara County said the blaze roared down a canyon in the Santa Ynez Mountains on gusting, erratic “Sundowner” winds Wednesday evening and could wind up consuming as many as 300 homes.
Flames quickly jumped tree-lined streets, skipped from roof to wood shake roof and swept down a canyon in the San Marcos Pass area to Cathedral Oaks Road, fire officials said.
County Fire Capt. Charlie Johnson said more than 100 structures, ranging from fancy Hope Ranch estates to simple apartments, had been destroyed as flames raced over more than 3,000 acres.
Area hospitals reported at least 37 people had been treated for smoke inhalation, chest pain and foreign objects in the eyes.
An incendiary device was found in the mountains where the fire began, and Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies detained a suspect shortly after 6 p.m., said Deputy Tim Gracey. He declined to release any other details.
A second fire merged with the canyon blaze, forcing evacuation of inmates at the Santa Barbara County Honor Farm, jumping U.S. 101 and forcing closure of the highway between Santa Barbara and Buellton.
Inmates at the Santa Barbara County Jail were evacuated to a nearby high school for several hours until the danger passed.
Sheriff’s deputies and National Guardsmen began evacuating residents in the fire area shortly after 7 p.m., but many people had left the area earlier without stopping to gather any possessions.
“This thing is the worst I’ve seen in 25 years,” Johnson said.
Janet Unterseher, 69, who was evacuated from the Rancho Santa Barbara trailer park, said:
“You could hear the explosion of the eucalyptus trees. The sky was a bloody red.”
Dr. George Scott ran around his house with a fire extinguisher, spraying the underbrush as fire consumed his back yard. He put his three dogs into his ancient Chrysler Imperial, but said he would not leave.
“I’ve been through three of these things,” he said. “But I’ve never seen winds this high.”
Ten minutes later, Scott drove out of the subdivision.
Orange County’s Carbon Canyon fire quickly spread northeast into the foothills of San Bernardino County where at least six homes were destroyed in Sleepy Hollow and in the Chino Hills area. About 200 residents from the Sleepy Hollow area, just over the county line in San Bernardino County, were evacuated, as were more residents in other areas on the Chino Hills.
Authorities said Wednesday night that fire remained a threat to some of the homes in Sleepy Hollow. Elsewhere, however, including Orange County, officials said the greatest danger appeared to be over.
“If the wind dies down tonight, hopefully we can control it,” said Henri Brachais, battalion chief for the Department of Forestry. Still, Brachais said the blaze was only about 20% contained and more homes could be lost if winds whipped up again. He added that the fire was not concentrated but instead was spread through the area in several patches.
None of the residents in the vicinity of the Carbon Canyon blaze was injured but seven firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation and minor burns as they battled fatigue and heat exhaustion while working in temperatures estimated at 105 degrees with wind gusts of about 15 m.p.h.
Pat Morgan, who fled her home in Sleepy Hollow as flames threatened to ignite the structure, said at a police blockade: “I felt like I was in a movie (and) they were filming a disaster. The cinder is blowing in your eyes, the winds are unbelievable, you’re listening to them tell you to evacuate. I bet (the temperature) jumped 20 degrees. It felt like I was in a furnace.”
The fire raced through 1,200 acres in Orange County and forced firefighters into a fierce battle at Olinda Village in Brea, where about 120 expensive, ranch-style homes were directly in the fire’s path. As many as 30 fire trucks were stationed along Verbena Lane and Olinda Drive.
The fire approached the homes when it burned down a nearby slope and hurdled the canyon floor. Residents said it exploded up the next hillside and instantly ignited trees adjacent to their ridge-top community, sending sheets of flame 20 feet into the air.
“You should have heard when those trees went up over there,” said Joan Lewis, 60, a resident of the area for 24 years. “They just exploded. It was like wind rushing up a pipe.”
The neighborhood was never evacuated and some residents watched the activity from lawn chairs perched on the hilltop. Others kept water on their roofs and homes with lawn hoses.
But some residents chose to leave.
Cheryl Musche and her two teen-aged sons, who live on Olinda Drive, were desperately packing up their truck with belongings and the family’s two dogs. “I don’t have time to talk,” she said.
Gary Winstead, 45, a biology teacher at Upland High School, also loaded his dog Oprah, and left, even though he said he was used to brush fires, having lived in the area for eight years.
“Last time it was here the flames came down and ate up the back of that guy’s house,” he said, pointing to a neighbor’s home. “We’re used to it by now.”
Carbon Canyon residents are indeed well acquainted with the danger of brush fire, especially at this time of year.
In 1958, a wildfire descended on the Sleepy Hollow area, destroying 32 homes and cabins. Almost exactly 20 years later, Santa Ana winds whipped a fire that scorched 5,600 acres without touching any homes. In 1980, three homes were destroyed in a Carbon Canyon fire that burned 8,500 acres.
In Glendale, firefighters were so overextended that residents were left to battle the blaze on their own during the first hours of the fire.
It came down to one man, one hose as residents scrambled to their roofs with garden hoses hoping to beat back the advancing flames.
Los Angeles City Fire Capt. Stephen Ruda commanded one contingent of firefighters who were among the first to arrive at the blaze along Foxkirk Road.
“Some homes we could save, some we had to abandon,” Ruda said. “The pine trees just exploded. Fireballs were raining into the canyon below us. The houses were helpless.”
Arson investigators in Glendale said a butane lighter, locked in the open position with a pen, was found in the brush.
It was the third arson this week in Los Angeles County caused by a butane lighter locked open the same way, said Glendale Battalion Chief Chris Gray.
“We suspect it’s the same person, because it’s been the same cause in three of the fires,” Gray said.
Authorities said a witness saw someone who might have set the fire and took a license plate number. But no arrests have been made.
“I haven’t seen a fire like this in Glendale for 12 years,” said Mayor Larry Zarian. He said fire officials reported that many of the homes that burned had highly flammable shake roofs.
About 1,000 students and teachers were evacuated from Glendale Community College in the middle of classes Wednesday as flames moved within yards of the campus, said spokeswoman Mary Shelburne.
In Riverside County, 17 firefighters were burned--one critically--as they battled a blaze that seared an undeveloped parcel of land southwest of Hemet.
Reed reported from Santa Barbara. Lesher reported from Orange County. Also contributing were Times staff writers Edward J. Boyer, Stephen Braun, Paul Feldman, Nieson Himmel, John H. Lee, Darrell Dawsey and Amy Pyle in Los Angeles; Lori Grange, Doug Smith and Phil Sneiderman in Glendale; John Hurst and Joanna M. Miller in Santa Barbara, and Jim Carlton and Matt Lait in Orange County.