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O.C. Fire Chars 1,800 Acres

Times Staff Writers

Pushed by Santa Ana winds, a wildfire raced across Orange County chaparral Monday, blackening 1,800 acres and prompting the evacuation of 2,000 homes and the closure of three schools and a major toll road.

Although the smoke could be seen throughout much of the Southland, no homes were in immediate danger, fire officials said, and there were no reports of injury. The fire, however, had not been contained late Monday.

Evacuation centers were set up at several schools. Dozens of residents drifted in and out of the centers to get news on the blaze, but nobody talked of spending the night.

Several small spot fires burned within half a mile of homes in Anaheim, but the main head of the blaze was held in check by firefighters who attacked the flames curling toward the 241 tollway. The turnpike, a major thoroughfare that slices through the Cleveland National Forest in northeastern Orange County, served as a firebreak.

The plume of smoke that billowed over the Santa Ana Mountains could be seen as far away as Los Angeles, and residents in Long Beach said ash rained down. In Orange County, smoke colored the sky a dingy brown, and its smell hung in the air.

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High schools in Anaheim, Orange and Villa Park canceled athletic events, and county health officials urged residents to limit outdoor activity because of the smoke.

“This is a real jagged, dirty burn,” said Mike Rohde, an Orange County Fire Authority battalion chief.

“It was all you could smell,” said Sylvia Udaya, an Orange resident who said she awoke Monday to the stench.

The fire broke out about 4:30 a.m. on the flanks of Sierra Peak, which hugs the border of Orange and Riverside counties. By sunup, the so-called Sierra fire had pushed west toward Orange and Anaheim Hills.

Winds gusting up to 50 mph in the mountains and temperatures reaching 80 degrees fueled the fire, said Dennis Shell, spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority.

The cause of the fire is being investigated, but the area where the blaze broke out is near a 10-acre strip of chaparral where federal fire workers recently conducted a controlled burn to clear dead vegetation, said Joan Wynn, spokeswoman for the Forest Service.

“We patrolled the area over the weekend, and there were no signs of smoke at all,” Wynn said.

For residents of the largely upscale communities of Orange Park Acres and Anaheim Hills, it was a day of uncertainty.

Joy Burch, 60, of Orange said she was still in her robe, staring at the flames from her window, when police knocked on her door, urging her to leave.

Burch said she grabbed her 15-year-old macaw, T.J., and drove to Villa Park High School, where she was one of the first to arrive at the evacuation site. A second refuge was set up at Travis Ranch Community Center in Yorba Linda.

“I would’ve stayed this time,” she said, recalling past wildfire evacuations. “It doesn’t seem like we’re in any danger.”

Ron Boswell, 62, of Anaheim Hills didn’t want to take chances. Still in his pajamas, he packed up his cat, Riot, and dog, Sugar, and headed to the high school, where he met up with his wife, Pam. She had picked up their 14-year-old daughter, Ashley, from school.

“She’s freaking out,” Pam Boswell, 56, said of her daughter.

Ruth Camarena, 55, stopped at the high school to get news on the fire but left quickly with two water bottles and headed back home, hoping to collect some belongings.

“I’m worried; I’m really worried about the house,” she said. “We’ve been in that house for 30 years.”

Several small fires broke out on the 241 toll road’s west side, which is developed with homes. They were extinguished before nightfall.

The gusting, shifting winds made it tough for the more than 700 local, state and federal firefighters to get the upper hand on the blaze.

“The Santa Ana wind conditions are causing some very erratic fire behavior,” Shell said.

Firefighters climbed hills carrying water hoses weighing as much as 150 pounds to push back the flames, while others hacked away at the brush and carved firebreaks with axes, chain saws and shovels. Airplanes and helicopters doused the hillsides with water.

The 241 toll road, an artery that empties into the Riverside Freeway, was closed at 8:20 a.m. when the smoke caused a traffic jam. “People were stopping to see what was going on,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Denise Medina.

The smoke prompted public health warnings from the Orange County Health Care Agency.

As a precaution, school officials evacuated more than 2,200 students at Santiago Middle School and Anaheim Hills and Canyon Rim elementary schools, all near the blaze. The students, some of whom left their backpacks behind, scrambled onto buses and were taken to nearby Canyon or El Modena high schools.

“We’re a little scared when we saw the flames, but then the school went into action, and everything went smoothly,” said Victoria Marone, who was among seven parent volunteers at Anaheim Hills Elementary notifying parents by phone of the evacuation.

Both of the grade schools will remain closed today.

At Villa Park High School, one of the evacuation sites, students emerged from their classrooms with bandanas covering noses and mouths. Others used their shirts and hands.

“This place is disgusting,” one student said, coughing.

Although the blaze did not destroy any structures, it did char habitat that is home to threatened birds, trees and other wildlife.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Chino Hills State Park environmental scientist Alissa Ing, who along with other staff members was closely monitoring the path of the Sierra fire.

“Coastal sage-scrub, the California gnatcatcher, Tecate cypress, those are the biggest concerns. We have our fingers crossed that the entire Tecate cypress forest didn’t burn.”

There are only four Tecate cypress forests left in the United States, and the one in the Santa Ana Mountains burned four years ago when a power line caught fire. The largest known Tecate specimen, dubbed “Big Mo,” was incinerated in that blaze.

Times staff writers Lynn Doan, Dan Weikel and Janet Wilson contributed to this report.


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