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At Least 12 Fires Erupt Across Southland as Mercury Soars

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Hampered by unusually torrid temperatures, hundreds of Southern California firefighters parried numerous wind-lashed fires Saturday that destroyed or damaged at least 16 residences, blackened thousands of acres, jammed traffic and forced the evacuation of residents and livestock.

It was not clear what triggered each of the fires, which began breaking out one after another about midday Saturday as stifling, triple-digit temperatures settled in on some Southland communities, and downtown Los Angeles saw a 112-year-old heat record shattered.

By dusk, at least 12 separate fires had sprung up throughout Southern California.

By nightfall, firefighters had gained the upper hand on the majority, but not before the fires had left a costly trail of ruin.

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An ornery blaze near the city of Industry kept 180 Los Angeles County firefighters at bay as it ripped through three residences, threatened nearby buildings and forced rescuers to escort about half a dozen horses from the area.

County Fire Department Battalion Chief Gene Wolf said it took 13 engines, five hand crews and three water-toting helicopters about two hours to control the fire, which started about 3 p.m and quickly ravaged a ravine thick with years-old vegetation. The blaze caused an estimated $1 million in damage, leveling two residences and two small structures, and damaging a third residence in a well-kept neighborhood known as Avocado Heights.

Jesus Rodriguez, 40, saw the smoke when it was about half a mile away and called 911. He, his five children and his wife could do nothing but watch as the crackling, hissing wall of flames advanced toward his house. By the time firefighters arrived, his four-bedroom home had been swallowed whole.

“Everything is gone, the photos of the children, important papers, everything,” said Rodriguez, picking through smoldering rubble for anything he could salvage.

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“We will try to rebuild. What else can we do?”

As the flames marched toward the neighborhood, anxious residents packed cars and trailers in preparation for a quick getaway. Others grabbed garden hoses and climbed on rooftops to defend their properties.

“I never saw flames move so quickly,” said Hugh Boyd, 59, who packed the car as his grown daughter, Jamie, climbed on the roof and wet down the house, which was spared. “It scared the hell out of me.”

The fire also charred five acres of brush. No injuries were reported in Avocado Heights or in any of Saturday’s other blazes.

In Pomona, four homes were “destroyed or partially destroyed” by a brush fire near the intersection of Loma Vista and Val Vista streets, Wolf said. That blaze, which was ignited about 3:45 p.m., required 22 engine crews to rein it in, he said.

“Eucalyptus trees caught fire and helped spread it,” said county fire Inspector Greg Cleveland.

Near Temecula, a fast-moving wildfire marched out of control Saturday evening after it consumed or damaged at least three single-family houses and six motor homes, and prompted the evacuation of residents near the Pechanga Indian Reservation. Fed by warm winds of more than 20 mph, the fire also burned at least 2,500 acres and for several hours occupied more than 200 firefighters laboring under a sweltering, glistening sun.

To douse the obstinate flames, fire officials in Temecula deployed helicopters using giant scoops, dipping into the ponds of nearby golf courses.

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Temecula residents Don Palmer and his girlfriend, Deb Siegmund, were at the movies when the fire that destroyed their house broke out about 1:30 p.m.

“We were watching ‘Eraser,’ and everything got erased out,” a stoic Siegmund said.

Their stucco ranch house, which Palmer built himself in 1987, sat on a hillside several hundred yards from the reservation. Returning from the movie, Palmer saw smoke coming from the tile roof of his house. “I walked up to the double French doors and I could hear the roof was on fire, but nothing was burning inside yet. I could hear the roof beginning to creak, then it caved in,” Palmer said, standing in front of the smoking remains.

The burned shell of a van and a motor home stood in Palmer’s driveway.

Neighbors told Palmer the fire started when a man began burning trash on the reservation, about 300 yards away, but fire officials had not determined the actual cause of the fire Saturday evening. Another house near Palmer’s, as well as a mobile home belonging to the man who was burning trash, were among those dwellings devastated by the fire.

Jessie Herrera, who lives on the reservation, lost her mobile home, as did her mother and four other mobile home owners she knows.

“I am just grateful that my family is still alive,” she said.

All told, 23 engines, four bulldozers and six air tankers had scrambled to the scene.

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In addition to the Temecula blaze, the California Department of Forestry reported battling four other fires in Riverside County. Those destroyed 700 acres in the Banning-Beaumont area, including one structure; 40 acres and 12 abandoned sheds in Mead Valley; 300 acres and two structures in Anza, and an estimated 600 to 800 acres in Moreno Valley.

The U.S. Forest Service was handling a 400-acre fire in Bee Canyon, also in Riverside County.

In the Angeles National Forest northeast of Los Angeles, about 500 acres of brush and trees had burned in the Bichota Springs area, threatening cabins and other structures.

In Ventura County, about 150 firefighters and 18 engines worked to knock down a wildfire burning in the Topatopa mountains near Ojai. About 120 acres had burned by 8 p.m., but the blaze was moving away from homes and into Los Padres National Forest. No homes were lost. Fire officials investigating the cause of the fire noted that, earlier this spring, an arsonist set three blazes nearby.

In the Cypress Park area of Los Angeles, at least three homes were being threatened by a brush fire Saturday night and about 80 firefighters had been deployed.

Firefighters at work in L.A.'s Elysian Park area seemed to have better success than most of their counterparts.

Brian Humphrey, a spokesman for the Los Angeles City Fire Department, said it took 135 city firefighters, aided by two Los Angeles County fire crews, two hours to extinguish a trio of brush fires that spread through nearly a dozen acres in rugged park terrain.

He said the fires were reported at 2:57 p.m. and the “key factor in gaining the upper hand was pinpoint precision water drops” from five Fire Department helicopters.

Although no buildings were damaged, Humphrey said, the “fire caused a traffic snarl on both the Golden State Freeway and the Pasadena Freeway as motorists craned their necks to watch.”

In fact, numerous area freeways backed up as the searing, dry conditions sent tens of thousands of people scurrying to area beaches for relief.

In Los Angeles, a temperature record that had stood since 1884 was broken when the mercury climbed to 98 degrees at the Civic Center. The previous high for the date was 94 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

Temperatures in Burbank hit 101, said Curtis Brack, a meteorologist with WeatherData. The record there for the day is 103. Van Nuys checked in with 102 degrees, but it was not immediately known how close that was to being a record.

Meteorologists blamed the brow-soaking temperatures on a double high pressure system that positioned itself over a large portion of the Pacific Coast, trapping heat in the region like a giant furnace. Warm offshore winds blowing toward the ocean effectively shooed away cooler sea breezes, boosting temperatures as well, experts said.

Forecasters said today would bring more of the same--not exactly the sort of news the region’s weary firefighters wanted to hear. Even at those fires that were snuffed out, crews were expected to be kept busy throughout the night, doing cleanup work and ensuring that there were no flare-ups.

Times staff writers Jeff Brazil, Peter Y. Hong, Nick Green and Henry Weinstein contributed to this story.


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