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Wildfire Toll Tops 1,500 Homes

Times Staff Writers

Dry, shifting winds kept weary firefighters off balance Monday as the Southern California fires advanced along three major fronts, one of them pushing into the northwestern reaches of the city of Los Angeles.

By Monday night, the three-day toll stood at 14 dead, 1,518 homes destroyed and more than 500,000 acres burned.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Oct. 31, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Satellite image -- A satellite image of Southern California and its coast that ran in Tuesday’s Section A with a map showing developments in Southland fires showed conditions on Sunday, not Monday, as text accompanying the map implied.

Wind and visibility improved enough for air tankers to join the firefight, and tenacious crews beat back flames from the Ventura County city of Fillmore. By late Monday afternoon, weather forecasters said, a shift had begun toward cooler, moister conditions -- the best possible news for those whose homes lie in the paths of the fires.

But the 10 separate blazes stubbornly persisted, threatening more homes and lives in a broken arc from Ventura County east to San Bernardino County and south to Tijuana.

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“This will be the most expensive fire in California history, both in loss of property and the cost of fighting it,” Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, said in a telephone news conference Monday. He said he could not yet estimate the extent of the loss.

The most expensive fire in the state’s history has been the Oakland Hills fire of October 1991, which had property losses estimated at $1.75 billion, a figure that would be considerably higher today because of rising property values. Three thousand homes were destroyed and 25 people died in that fire.

San Diego County has been hardest hit by the latest series of fires -- at least three under investigation as possible arson -- and lost dozens more homes Monday when flames jumped across Interstate 8 and rampaged through the Crest and Alpine communities in the mountains east of San Diego. Among the houses destroyed was that of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), who had been critical of Gov. Gray Davis for not responding aggressively enough to the fire.

Fire crews fought desperately to keep that fire from joining another and creating what one firefighter worried would be an “unstoppable hurricane of fire.”

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One fire crossed the Mexican border into Tijuana, and an unrelated fire destroyed 10 homes near Ensenada.

San Diego officials dramatically increased their damage accounts Monday after damage-assessment teams fanned out across the county to examine fire-ravaged neighborhoods.

By the end of the day, they had more than doubled their count of destroyed homes to more than 900, making these fires the most destructive in the county’s history.

In the north, a blaze that began in Simi Valley crossed from Ventura County into Los Angeles County and advanced menacingly toward the foothill communities of Porter Ranch and Chatsworth.

In the San Bernardino Mountains, firefighters took a risky gambit by setting controlled burns south of Lake Arrowhead in a effort to halt the advance of a fire that threatened a string of resort communities home to more than 45,000 people.

President Bush declared a disaster area in the stricken region, opening the way for federal assistance to fire victims in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. “This is a devastating fire, and it’s a dangerous fire,” the president told reporters.

California’s incoming and outgoing governors toured charred areas; both appeared sobered. “They say these are the most devastating fires that have happened in the last decade,” Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger said during a visit to Simi Valley. “What the firefighters are doing here is extraordinary. This is why I’m out here visiting, to let them know what great heroes they are.”

Davis, at Scripps Ranch in San Diego County, said he was reminded of scenes of devastation that he saw as a soldier in Vietnam.

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The fires forced the closures of hundreds of schools and businesses. Hospitals reported a large number of people suffering breathing problems from the thick haze that hung over much of the region in a toxic blanket of grays, greens and yellows. Some areas were blanketed by a snow-like coating of ash.

Airports from Los Angeles to San Diego continued to experience delays that rippled across the nation’s air system for a second day Monday as Federal Aviation Administration officials worked to bring a San Diego air traffic control center back in service by this morning.

Officials closed the radar control center, which routes traffic into and out of the region’s airports, after it was threatened by fire Sunday.

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Ventura, L.A. Counties

In Ventura County, fire crews battled on two fronts as the 90,000-acre Simi fire threatened exclusive canyon communities on the Los Angeles County line, and firefighters were credited with saving Fillmore from a 50,000-acre blaze that marched to the city limits.

No more homes were burned, authorities said, keeping at 30 the number of structures damaged or destroyed during the Simi fire, which began Friday night near Santa Clarita.

The fiercest firefight occurred shortly after daybreak Monday at the easternmost end of Simi Valley, near the equestrian community of Santa Susana Knolls and rugged Box Canyon, an eclectic mix of aging wooden cabins and whitewashed million-dollar homes.

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There, 900 exhausted firefighters, who had been on the front lines for days, joined air tankers, helicopters and bulldozers to confront a huge blaze that jumped the Ronald Reagan Freeway and headed south.

That prompted mandatory evacuations in a cluster of canyon and hillside communities straddling the border of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, including parts of the Chatsworth area of Los Angeles.

Asia Carrera, an adult film actress who lives in a Chatsworth townhome, fled with her two cats in her metallic blue Corvette. She packed some clothes and her computer because she also runs an online porn business.

She said she lived in Calabasas during the Calabasas-Malibu fire in 1993. “I’ve been through it before, but this is a lot bigger,” she said. “I didn’t sleep at all last night. I read all night. I sat by the window and looked at the sky glowing red.”

In a neighborhood just north of the Ronald Reagan Freeway, sheriff’s deputies were helping Ana and Monte Cox, a couple who train exotic animals for film projects. They had a Bengal tiger, two lion cubs and a cougar that they had evacuated from San Bernardino because of the fire there, and were being forced to move again. This time, they said, the animals were being taken to presumed safety in Northern California.

Twenty miles north, an additional 800 firefighters struggled to keep a separate wildfire in Los Padres National Forest from spreading and destroying homes in nearby Fillmore and Piru.

The fire, which began Thursday near Lake Piru, was 90% contained at 1,250 acres early Sunday. But late Sunday, swirling Santa Ana winds blew it out of control, forcing fire crews to burn strips of vegetation around homes to save them. By Monday morning, the fire had consumed 50,000 acres and was only 5% contained.

The Piru fire burned hundreds of acres at the southern edge of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, and fire crews were trying to prevent it from pushing westward across Sespe Creek and heading toward the high mountains that ring Santa Paula and the Ojai Valley.

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San Diego County

By the end of the day Monday, fires in San Diego County had burned more than 300,000 acres in the course of a three-day rampage. An estimated 10,000 people had been routed from their residences.

“I’ve been in this business for 47 years, and without a doubt, this is the worst fire tragedy I’ve ever seen,” said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender.

San Diego officials reported two more fire-related deaths. They also determined that one of the 11 people whose death had been counted Sunday as fire-related actually had died of other causes.

The total of deaths in the San Diego fires now stands at 12, but Kolender said his office is investigating the possibility of other fatalities.

An estimated 50,000 people were left without electricity. Military bases in the region scaled back activities.

Firefighting equipment and personnel were stretched thin, and some homeowners were angered to watch their homes burn without a firefighter in sight.

Some elected officials complained bitterly that Davis did not formally request military aerial tankers on Sunday before fire destroyed hundreds of homes in Valley Center, Ramona, Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta.

County Supervisor Greg Cox said that he encountered a “nightmarish tale of red tape” while seeking the governor’s help in asking the Pentagon to authorize the use of military-owned helicopters and tankers.

Davis, at a news conference at Scripps Ranch, said it was the duty of the U.S. Forest Service, not the governor’s office, to ask for the assistance. And he reminded San Diegans that residents elsewhere in Southern California were also begging for fire protection.

“People want a firetruck the minute their house is under siege,” Davis said. “I understand that. Sometimes we can do that, sometimes we can’t.”

Officials announced that a hunter cited by federal law enforcement officials for setting an illegal fire in the Cleveland National Forest between Ramona and Julian may face felony charges. Hunter Sergio Martinez, 33, of Covina said he set the fire after becoming lost and disoriented.

Martinez was rescued by helicopter on Saturday, telling the pilot, “I thought I was going to die out there.” He initially denied setting the fire, but later admitted doing it to attract attention, officials said.

The fire spread into what is called the Cedar fire, which has burned 264,664 acres, destroyed 881 homes and led to the deaths of at least nine people attempting to escape.

On Monday, while fire raged south of Interstate 8, firefighters had better success against the Paradise fire in the northern section of the county and the Cedar fire, which spread southward to neighborhoods in San Diego. Neither destroyed any additional homes.

Still, new areas were evacuated..

Even as some evacuees became semi-comfortable in their new surroundings, additional residents were being forced from their homes. Many spent hours wondering whether their homes had been destroyed. Information was scarce, and police blocked residents from returning to their neighborhoods.

“We can replace things, but we can’t replace lives,” said Beth Summa, 70, who was ordered from her home in Skyline Ranch Country Club near Valley Center. “We’re just grateful we got out.”

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San Bernardino County

The blaze called the Old fire, which has destroyed 450 homes, continued to burn out of control in the San Bernardino Mountains, forcing the evacuation of 10,000 more residents in its unrelenting advance toward Lake Arrowhead and surrounding mountain communities.

The fire’s stubborn western flank also crept along the foothills above Devore, near the interchange of the 15 and 215 freeways, forcing residents to flee but sparing homes in the rural neighborhood.

In the mountains, water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers joined fire crews in an attempt to stop the advance of flames. While other regions welcomed the shift from easterly Santa Ana winds to cooler coastal breezes, firefighters in San Bernardino County worried that the westerly flows could push the fire up the mountainside and into Lake Arrowhead, Running Springs and other mountain communities.

During a lull in the winds Monday afternoon, ground crews set a string of risky controlled burns near the Rim of the World Highway just west of the community of Rimforest, hoping to clear the ridge top of fuel before the main body of fire reaches the highway. The goal was to prevent a catastrophic firestorm around Lake Arrowhead, but some flames jumped the highway nevertheless.

About 10 p.m., flames leapt across the highway, and headed toward a nest of emergency radio repeater antennas used by law enforcement. Shortly before midnight, the fire overwhelmed that area and was proceeding north toward mountain communities, including Lake Arrowhead, which was about four miles from the front of the fire.

One Forest Service official said the back fire had gotten out of control, while another said the flames were from the main body of wildfire.

“Our priorities now are protecting life and property,” said Greg Cleveland of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, who is helping with the Old fire. “But as far as containing it, with these winds and conditions, it’s been nearly impossible.”

In the foothill community of Devore, crews scrambled to contain another flare-up just after sundown. Brian Solorio, a San Bernardino city firefighter, said he and his crew had been struggling all day to save houses as the fire seesawed up and down the foothills, climbing during calm periods and then being pushed down by the remnants of the Santa Ana winds.

The Grand Prix fire, which ravaged parts of Rancho Cucamonga and Claremont, retreated into the mountains on Monday and was threatening Mt. Baldy Village, forcing federal authorities to close Angeles National Forest. It had scorched a total of 57,000 acres.

Residents were allowed to return to their homes in Rancho Cucamonga, San Antonio Heights, Upland and Rialto. Many schools in the area will remain closed today.

Firefighters were optimistic about controlling a fire in Riverside County. The Mountain fire, which began Sunday near Temecula, destroyed 26 buildings and 13 vehicles, authorities said.


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