Siege of Fire Levels 637 Homes : Disaster Declared in Santa Barbara, Glendale : Devastation: Santa Barbara blaze, which claimed 567 homes, is Southland’s most destructive in 30 years. Residential damage is put at more than $190 million.
An arson-caused wildfire burned out of control here Thursday night after destroying 567 homes, injuring 40 people and blackening 4,000 acres during a brutal, wind swept march from the mountains to the coast.
It was the most destructive Southern California fire in at least 30 years, outstripping even the infamous Bel-Air fire of November, 1961, in which 484 homes were lost.
The fire on the western edge of Santa Barbara was one of four major blazes that claimed a total of at least 637 homes across the Southland during a heat wave that finally began to ease up on Thursday.
Two of the other blazes--one in Glendale and the other in Chino Hills--were also believed set by arsonists.
Gov. George Deukmejian, who toured fire-ravaged areas Thursday, offered $50,000 rewards for anyone responsible for the Santa Barbara and Glendale fires and declared both communities disaster areas, paving the way for state aid to rebuild the stricken neighborhoods.
The fourth fire, in rugged brushlands south of Corona, was the product of a controlled burn that burst out of control late Wednesday on gusty winds.
Residential damage in the Santa Barbara blaze was estimated at more than $190 million. Government buildings, including a Santa Barbara county jail facility, suffered about $4 million in damage and 14 business structures suffered damage estimated at $2.5 million.
A U.S. Forest Service helicopter crashed during a water drop at about 2:50 p.m. Thursday afternoon as firefighters battled to contain the rear flank of the Santa Barbara blaze near the summit of San Marcos Pass, about 15 miles east of former President Reagan’s Rancho Cielo.
Officials said the pilot--the only one aboard the craft--suffered cuts and was hospitalized. The cause of the crash was not immediately determined.
Thirty-nine other people suffered a variety of injuries in the blaze and 12 were admitted to local hospitals. One person was listed in critical condition.
Investigators said they had recovered “an incendiary device” beside the San Marcos Pass Road, where the fire was lit, but declined to give further details. They said no suspects had been identified.
There was no prediction when the blaze might be contained. For much of the afternoon, the flames threatened to push north, through a health spa owned by actress Jane Fonda and over the crest of the pass into the Santa Ynez Valley. Then, late in the afternoon, offshore breezes returned, and portions of the fire turned back south toward the main burn area.
The fire, which officials said was set by an arsonist around 6 p.m. Wednesday about a mile below the pass, had first moved in a generally southerly direction.
Advancing on bristling “Sundowner” winds, the blaze swept downhill through homes in the San Antonio Creek and Cathedral Oaks areas before leaping U.S. 101, scorching a trestle on the Southern Pacific mainline and invading posh residential communities along the shoreline.
“It’s just total devastation,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Tim Grassey said shortly before dawn Thursday as the flames continued to advance. “You never felt more helpless. You look at it and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
Several of the houses that burned were multimillion-dollar structures in the exclusive Hope Ranch enclave, where residents attempting to stem the blaze with garden hoses were forced to flee for their lives as water pressure in the drought-plagued area dwindled to nothing.
In nearby Rancho San Antonio Estates, 60-year-old Gerry Hon, a retired truck driver, decided to make a stand.
“I thought I could save it,” the grizzled Korean War veteran explained, pointing to the home he shares with his mother. “They wanted me to leave, but I refused to.”
His pants singed, his T-shirt blackened and a bandage covering a bicep blistered by flames, Hon said he decided to battle for his home, “because there’s a lifetime of mementoes in there . . .
“I grabbed my garden hose and climbed on the roof,” he said. “Pretty soon, I was completely surrounded by fire. My T-shirt caught fire, and I had to turn the hose on myself to to put it out.
“It got so bad that I finally climbed down and ran to my car,” he said. “But then I just stopped and . . . I got mad and climbed back up on the roof.”
Hours later, the flames had moved on for good, the house was intact, and, down on the ground once more, Hon felt “so weak and tired and wet that I was numb”
But he wasn’t finished, yet.
He grabbed an American flag he keeps in the back yard, clambered back up on the roof and mounted the fluttering pennant on the peak of the gable.
“I just felt the need to see something flying,” he said quietly.
Firefighters said several elements were conspiring against them--gusting winds, high temperatures, low humidity, thick underbrush that hadn’t burned since 1955 and the prolonged drought that has parched the brush and drained the reservoirs of a community already forced to ration water to the point that lawns and shrubbery are dry.
Despite the other blazes in the Southland that limited the available fire-fighting resources, officials were able to deploy a ground force of 800 firefighters against the Santa Barbara fire by dawn Thursday.
With the return of daylight, aerial tankers began swooping overhead, dropping water on hot spots.
Firefighters eventually gained control of the southern flank of the fire, where most of the homes had burned, and the battle veered to the north, near San Marcos Pass.
As the action turned away from their neighborhoods, hundreds of those who fled in the night--many to an evacuation center of the UC Santa Barbara gymnasium, returned to survey the damage.
Bonnie Dickinson sat quietly on a blackened rock, staring at the charred remains of the home she and her husband had shared for 28 years.
“But we can count our blessings,” she managed through her tears. “You know, a house. We can rebuild it. It’s not the end of the world.”
Ilya Magid, who lost his home, said he and his wife Regina immigrated from Lithuania in 1980.
“Ten years ago, we start from nothing,” he said. “Now, again, we start from nothing.”
Officials said that because of the damage to the railroad bridge, Amtrak passengers will be bused between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo until repairs are completed, probably today.
Traffic was still interrupted Thursday night on a number of highways in the Santa Barbara area.
In Glendale, firefighters mopped up Thursday after a fast-moving blaze destroyed at least 46 homes and damaged 20 more before flames were brought under control at about 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Damage was estimated at between $30 million and $40 million.
Evening rush-hour traffic was brought to a halt at the height of the fire Wednesday as flames burned on both sides of the Glendale Freeway. Driven by winds gusting at up to 35 m.p.h., the flames leapfrogged from house to house, destroying some, leaving others untouched.
On Thursday morning, Kim Hong leafed through a leatherbound Bible stacked amid the few belongings recovered from her charred home on Avonoaks Terrace.
“Everything else in my bedroom was destroyed,” she said. “There was fire on top and fire on the bottom of this, and it didn’t burn. God must have protected the words.”
Arson investigators said a butane lighter, locked in the open position with a pen, apparently was used to start the fire. It was the third time this week that a butane lighter had been used in this fashion to start a brush fire in the area, and officials said they believe the same person is responsible..
At the San Bernardino County-Orange County line in the Chino Hills, 12 homes were destroyed in a blaze that spread rapidly over 6,250 acres of rolling chapparal near the Carbon Canyon community of Sleepy Hollow.
Eight firefighters suffered minor injuries battling the blaze, which was full contained by nightfall Thursday.
Peter Reyes, a 29-year-old transient, was arrested on suspicion of setting the blaze.
In Riverside County, 12 homes were destroyed in a fire that raced through 2,200 acres of rugged brushland south of Corona, near Interstate 15.
About 400 firefighters were battling the blaze, which stemmed from a controlled burn that got away from U. S. Forest Service crews.
Kim Bolan, a forest service spokeswoman, said the fire was deliberately set in the Cleveland National Forest about a week ago to clear away unwanted vegetation and create a “fuel barrier” to block the spread of future wildfires.
She said that although the temperatures were low, humidity was high and winds were gentle when the fire was set, all that changed earlier this week as the dry, windy heat wave descended on the area.
Bolan said embers buried beneath the soil--undetected with infrared sensors on USFS surveillance planes--were apparently fanned to life by the winds, rekindling the blaze that spread rapidly into heavy chapparal.
Three other, smaller fires burned Thursday in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties.
Near Claremont, in eastern Los Angeles County, a brush fire swept through 400 acres of land, briefly threatening dozens of luxury homes, before it was contained by a force of more than 250 firefighters. Investigators said it had been deliberately set.
Southwest of Hemet, in Riverside County, a blaze was controlled Thursday after burning more than 125 acres near Hemet. Seventeen firefighters were burned--one critically--while battling the blaze on Wednesday.
San Diego County firefighters in the mountainous Julian area were battling a blaze Thursday night near the Santa Ysabel Indian Reservation.
By late Thursday, 300 people in the largely rural area had been evacuated, most of them from two camps, one for Boy Scouts.
A 28-year-old Castaic man was arrested Thursday on suspicion of setting at least three fires in the Antelope Valley that blackened several acres but did not damage any homes, authorities said.
David Wayne Cunningham, 28, was arrested by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s arson investigators at the home of his girl friend in Quartz Hill, about 1 1/2 miles from the third of three fires set shortly after midnight Thursday, said sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Shreves.
Shreves said Cunningham was originally an informant on the fires, having reported them to U.S. Forest Service officials.
“When deputies interviewed him at 4 a.m., they found several inconsistencies in his statements and physical evidence indicating he probably set the fires,” Shreves said.
In Arizona, a fire continued to burn out of control Thursday after scorching 16,500 acres and destroying 50 homes in the Tonto National Forest area 90 miles north of Phoenix.
Federal officials said five prison inmates and a prison employee were killed while battling the blaze. The officials said the victims were among several crews trapped when a “dry thunderstorm” struck the area, starting dozens of blazes that spread simultaneously in all directions.
The fire destroyed a cabin built in the 1920s by novelist Zane Grey, who set many of his stories in the pine-shaded Tonto Rim area.
Malnic reported from Los Angeles. Reed reported from Santa Barbara.
MAJOR SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA BRUSH FIRES June, 1990--A swarm of fast-moving fires, at least three deliberately set, destroyed more than 600 homes in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. Many more structures were damaged and more than 80 people were injured. Property damage was estimated at more than $200 million. July 17, 1989--A brush fire sparked by exhaust from a tractor destroyed three homes, injured nine firefighters and charred more than 1,400 acres near Mt. San Jacinto in Riverside County. Damage was estimated at $175,000. July 4, 1989--A brush fire erupting out of Turnbull Canyon in Puente Hills destroyed 13 homes and damaged eight others. Damage was estimated at $4.3 million. July 1, 1989--A blaze that broke out near Ortega Highway in Riverside County burned 8,200 acres there and in Orange County and destroyed 11 structures near Lake Elsinore. Damage was estimated at $1.1 million; it cost $1.5 million to fight. June, 1989--Fires in the Cleveland National Forest scorched 7,000 acres and destroyed six homes. December, 1988--A 3,000-acre fire in Granada Hills and the Porter Ranch area destroyed 15 homes and damaged 25 others. Damage was estimated at $4.3 million. September, 1988--A 600-acre brush fire, set off when winds forced two high-voltage utility lines together, damaged 21 homes in the San Carlos section of San Diego. June 24, 1988--A foothill fire in Apple Valley in San Bernardino County injured 10 people, destroyed four homes and burned 215 acres. Damage was estimated at $145,000. June 5, 1988--A fast-moving brush fire, fed by high winds, destroyed six homes and charred 1,800 acres west of Desert Hot Springs in Riverside County. February, 1987--Fires whipped by Santa Ana winds destroyed four homes in Riverside County and blackened more than 280 acres of mountain brush. Damage was estimated at $450,000. July, 1986--Smoldering charcoals dumped by the roadside began a blaze in a San Gabriel wilderness area in Los Angeles County that eventually burned 2,400 acres, did $4 million damage to the countryside and cost $852,000 to fight. July, 1985--An arson fire exploded in dry brush, swept up a slope in Baldwin Hills and killed three people, destroyed 48 homes and damaged 18 others. Damage was estimated at $16 million. June-July, 1985--Flames lashing through four Southern California counties destroyed at least 64 homes in San Diego County and scorched nearly 30,000 acres in Riverside, Los Angeles and Ventura counties. October, 1982--One wind-driven fire swept 15 miles from Simi Valley to the Malibu coast and another leaped across northeast Orange County and into the Anaheim Hills. At least 56 homes and 41 mobile homes were lost. April, 1982--An electrical fire sparked a blaze in a palm tree that ended up destroying 50 buildings, most of them apartments, and displacing 1,200 people in Anaheim. Damage was estimated at about $50 million. October, 1981--Santa Ana winds blew flames from a Chatsworth Reservoir fire south toward the Ventura Freeway, where flames stormed through six homes and scorched another eight within a 1 1/2-square-mile area. October, 1980--An arson fire in Owl Canyon spread wind-fanned flames across nearly 15,000 acres in Northern Orange County, destroying one house and two barns. November, 1980--At least six separate fires stretching across Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange counties killed four people and demolished 320 homes and cabins, as well as 150 other buildings. Santa Ana winds up to 100 m.p.h. sent flames across 140 square miles, causing $50 million in damage. October, 1978--A juggernaut of flame and smoke from eight almost-simultaneous fires destroyed 230 homes and a church in blazes from Malibu to Agoura and Mandeville Canyon. One man was killed and damage was estimated at $71.4 million. One of the blazes sprang up at virtually the same spot where a destructive September, 1970, fire began. July, 1977--Santa Barbara saw 216 homes leveled in fires that caused about $33 million in damage. September, 1970--Ten people died and 403 homes were ravaged as several blazes roared in a single wall of flames 20 miles long from Newhall to Malibu. The conflagration, which charred 435,000 acres, caused an estimated $175 million in property damage. October, 1967--Fire roared through Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County, killing one person and destroying 66 homes. More than 48,000 acres were blackened. Damage was estimated at $2.5 million. November, 1966--Eleven firefighters died, trapped by flames as they fought a fire on a Pacoima hillside. November, 1961--Costly homes of stars such as Zsa Zsa Gabor and Burt Lancaster were consumed as high winds sent flames through the exclusive neighborhood of Bel-Air, destroying 484 homes worth an estimated $25 million. Source: Times news file
Fire Coverage TURNING POINT--It was a night of terror for those in the path of flames. A41 THE UNEXPECTED--Surprises flared too as fireproof roofs burned, flames jumped freeways and a call to 911 didn’t always bring help. A42 LIKE ‘FLAMETHROWER'--The worst fire in Glendale history leveled or damaged 66 homes despite quick action. A43 FIRESCOPE--A firefighting response network proved no match for the fast-moving blazes in Southern California. A43