Siege of Fire Fells 420 Homes : Disasters Declared in Santa Barbara, Glendale : Devastation: Flames still rage out of control in Santa Barbara where 350 residences were destroyed. Rewards of $50,000 offered for arson suspects.
A devastating wildfire continued to burn out of control here Thursday night after destroying 350 homes, injuring a helicopter crewman and blackening 3,500 acres during a brutal, windswept march from the mountains to the coast.
The Santa Barbara fire was one of four major blazes that claimed at least 420 homes across Southern California during a heat wave that finally began to ease up on Thursday.
Three of the fires--the one in Santa Barbara plus others in Glendale and the Chino Hills--were believed started 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.
A fifth, smaller fire erupted in Claremont on Thursday afternoon, threatening 10 homes evacuated near Marshall Canyon Golf Course, Los Angeles County fire officials said. About 300 fire fighters were battling the blaze, assisted by water-dropping helicopters.
Residential damage in the Santa Barbara blaze was estimated at more than $190 million. No estimates were available for commerical structures, like the several retail businesses that burned in the blaze, or for government buildings, like the Santa Barbara County jail facility that suffered heavy damage.
A U.S. Forest Service helicopter crashed during a water drop at about 2:50 p.m. Thursday afternoon as fire fighters 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. The cause of the crash was not immediately determined.
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 towrd the main burn area.
The fire, which officials say was set by an arsonist at about 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 Highway 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 multi-million-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 severely drought plagued areadwindled 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 that he decided to battle for his home, “because there’s a lifetime of momentos 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. “Then I just stopped and said, ‘Bullshit to this.”’
Hon said he climbed back on the roof, turned the hose back on and resumed his fight.
Hours later, the flames had moved on for good, the house was intact, and, back 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 explained, quietly.
Fire fighters 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 were bone dry.
Despite the other blazes in the Southland that limited the available fire-fighting resources, officials were able to deploy a ground force of 700 fire fighters against the Santa Barbara fire by dawn Thursday.
With the return of daylight, aerial tankers began swooping overhead, dropping water on hot spots.
Fire fighters 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 of them 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 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 within several days.
Traffic was still interrupted Thursday night on a number of highways in the Santa Barbara area.
In Glendale, fire fighters mopped up Thursday after a fast-moving blaze that 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 $50 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 fire fighters suffered minor injuries battling the fire, 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, another 12 homes were destroyed in a fire that raced through 2,200 acres of rugged brushland south of Corona, near Interstate 15.
About 400 fire fighters 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 deep 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.
In Riverside County, 17 firefighters were burned Wednesday--one critically--as they battled a blaze that seared about 125 acres an undeveloped parcel of land southwest of Hemet. The blaze was fully controlled Thursday.
San Diego County fire fighters in the mountainous Julian area were battling a blaze Thursday night near the Santa Ysabel Indian Reservation.
The fire was reported at 2:20 p.m. and no cause was known, a spokeswoman said.
By 6 p.m., 300 people in the largely rural area had been evacuated, most of them from two camps, one for Boy Scouts.
Three other San Diego fires that erupted Wednesday had been contained.
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,” Shreves said, “and physical evidence indicating he probably set the fires.”
Arson investigators in the area were called out on at least three additional fires later in the day Thursday, apparently unrelated to those attributed to Cunningham.
“It is common for us to get copy cat 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.