Winds relent, but fires persist

A lull in the fierce, desert-born Santa Ana winds that pushed three devastating wildfires through Southern California delivered the first major break in days to fire crews from Anaheim Hills to Santa Barbara on Sunday, although authorities warned that shifting winds could splinter off erratic blazes and threaten homes for at least another day.

The gravest threat late Sunday was along the border of Orange, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, as the fire charged toward the canyons and hillsides of Diamond Bar, Chino Hills and Brea.

The so-called Freeway Complex fire caused authorities to order more than 26,000 residents to evacuate and destroyed at least 179 homes, most of them in Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills. Firefighters spent day and night Sunday beating back the fire’s northern march along the 57 Freeway and its stubborn hold on Tonner Canyon north of Brea.


Forecasters predicted more hot, dry weather for today, but without the type of wind that whipped up flames through the weekend. Authorities warned of poor air quality throughout the region today, and classes have been canceled at some schools near fire zones in Orange County.

“The overall big picture is we’re encouraged by the weather,” said Ray Chaney, an incident commander from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection who was working on the Freeway Complex fire. But he wasn’t ready to claim victory. “We’re not going to let our guard down. We’ve got several days of hard, hard work.”

In fire areas throughout the region Sunday, residents not under mandatory evacuation waited and watched. In Diamond Bar, the Delgado family was packed up and watching aircraft drop loads of fire retardant onto the flames below.

“It looks far away, but then the wind shifts and it gets closer,” said Julie Delgado, who has lived in the community 19 years. “If I see it coming, I will water the eaves then go to my sister’s house.”

Up the hill at the exclusive Country gated community, an evacuation order was issued after flames got dangerously close to hilltop mansions. Among those who left was rapper Snoop Dogg, who headed out in a caravan that included caged dogs, according to neighbors.

Nerves were much calmer for most people living near the region’s two other major blazes.

The Sayre fire near Sylmar was 40% contained Sunday evening, although firefighters had to scramble to battle an afternoon flare-up in Placerita Canyon near Santa Clarita.

By Sunday night, the blaze had destroyed more than 510 homes. A total of 10,000 acres had burned, and at one point 10,000 residents were under mandatory evacuation orders. Five firefighters and one civilian suffered injuries, authorities said.

Fire officials in Santa Barbara County lifted evacuation orders Sunday at 3:30 p.m. for all but 260 homes involved in the Tea fire, which began in Montecito at sundown Thursday and destroyed 210 residences and burned 1,940 acres.

“It’s not expanding,” said William Boyer, communications director for Santa Barbara County. “There are still some hot spots, but there’s a very optimistic outlook at this point.”

Containment was at 80% as of late Sunday.

After igniting near the Santa Ana River in Corona on Saturday, the Freeway Complex fire snaked along the edges of Chino Hills State Park, a 13,000-acre refuge from development that serves as a natural wildlife corridor.

Mary Anzueto, 54, waited at her Anaheim Hills apartment late Saturday night for an evacuation order that never came. When she saw flames beginning to burn brush 20 feet from the wooden balcony of her second-story apartment, she knew it was time to go.

“I had to high-tail it out with the baby and the Chihuahua,” the grandmother said, referring to her 4-year-old grandson Matthew and the family pet.

When Anzueto was allowed back into the area on Sunday, she found that dozens of apartments in the 285-unit complex had been destroyed. From her balcony, she could see foliage 10 feet away that had burned. But her apartment was untouched.

“Last night I cried out in grief, but today I cried tears of joy,” Anzueto said.

At an Orange County news conference Sunday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger thanked the crews battling the fires. “We have the most courageous, toughest firefighters. . . . These are the true action heroes of our state and our country,” he said.

Schwarzenegger said that despite the state’s financial woes, there was no danger of running short on resources to combat the fires and that residents could also expect federal assistance.

Earlier in the day, he and other officials called for a review of building standards and emergency procedures based on the destruction of a mobile home park in Sylmar and a power failure at nearby Olive View-UCLA Medical Center.

Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Mike Moore said “we have every confidence” that all the residents of the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar escaped with their lives, if nothing else: “We are aware of no fatalities.”

On Sunday night, crews had searched about 30% of the 608 Oakridge lots with the assistance of dogs trained to find cadavers. Officials believe that 602 of the homes were occupied. Of those, 124 were saved from destruction, most on the eastern tip of the community.

Native Angeleno Danny Rios and his wife were among those who lost their homes there. Rios, 73, and his wife Mary, 71, raced away from their well-tended home as the wildfire tore through the complex.

On Sunday morning, the couple gathered with dozens of other residents outside the park’s charred gates, hoping to be allowed in to see what was left of their homes. Coughing from the smoke despite their white masks, the Rioses tried to explain that it was the people, as much as the place, that made Oakridge special.

“It was so sad. We’re going to be disconnected from everyone,” said Mary Rios, softly crying. “It’s hard.”

The fire helped the couple finally make their decision to move to the Midwest. And if their house is struck by a tornado? “We’ll run to the basement,” Rios said.

Officials said they have not yet determined a cause for any of the fires.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies on Sunday arrested a 39-year-old man suspected of setting a small fire near Stokes Canyon Road and Mulholland Highway in Calabasas. A resident told investigators that he saw Suren Sahakyan light leaves and paper on fire near the shoulder of the road. Sahakyan was booked on suspicion of arson. Sheriff’s officials said there was no indication that the incident was connected to any of the recent fires but said it was under investigation.

In Sylmar, arson investigators were scouring the devastation at Oakridge Mobile Home Park, though the fire started more than a mile to the east.

Just inside the community’s front gate was a reminder of the terrible conflagration: hoses that firefighters simply dropped in the street when they were ordered to get out. Some of the hoses had been burned so thoroughly that they were simply snaking stains on the street.

“Our people stayed until the last, last, last minute,” said Los Angeles Fire Battalion Chief Mike Bowman. “We had to call on the radio and order them out of here. They stayed until the bitter end.”

Abdollah, Holland and Willon are Times staff writers.

Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Tony Barboza, Hector Becerra, Andrew Blankstein, Howard Blume, Julie Cart, Scott Gold, Jeff Gottlieb, David Kelly, Kate Linthicum, Joe Mozingo, Carla Rivera, Susannah Rosenblatt and Alexandra Zavis.