Wind-fueled fires continued to rage out of control tonight in Orange County as emergency personnel struggled to get ahead of erratic leap-frogging flare-ups that were consuming houses and apartments and prompting evacuation orders for more than 20,000 residents.
“We have not been able to pinpoint exactly where the fires are,” said Orange County Fire Authority spokesperson Christy Romero. “There are many spot fires; the fire is not in one general direction.”
More than 600 homes have been damaged or destroyed in the Los Angeles and Orange County wildfires since Friday night. In Anaheim Hills, where 58 homes were destroyed by 7 p.m., residents were ordered to flee as a blaze that began early today in nearby Riverside County swept through Yorba Linda and jumped the 91 Freeway and 241 toll road.
“The embers are falling miles ahead of the fire front,” said Battalion Chief Chris Concepcion of the Orange County Fire Authority. “That’s what is creating a lot of the problems.” Dubbed the Freeway Complex blaze, the firestorm had consumed about 2,000 acres by evening, damaged or destroyed at least 88 homes. Structures also were damaged at Brea Canyon High School.
More than 4,500 homes were evacuated, with 300 people staying at an emergency shelter at Katella High School. It was the third evacuation center set up after two others had to be abandoned because of smoke and approaching flames.
“We were running underneath fire,” said Lene Vrieling, 23, describing her flight from the Cascades Apartments near Anaheim Hills, to which she had moved with her mother and sisters two weeks ago. “The branches and ashes were falling on us. My mom almost got trapped.”
At the apartment development, where at least three large buildings were destroyed, one resident wearing flip flops huffed as he emerged from dense smoke. “I gotta get my dog out,” he said, before vanishing back into smoke.
A short distance away, as the setting sun hung on the blackened skyline, Mary Palmer and her husband Gene were trying to get to her daughter’s wedding. The couple had been in Long Beach getting their hair done when they heard about the fire.
They were told they couldn’t drive back to their Yorba Linda home, so they parked in Anaheim Hills and walked two miles to dress for the ceremony. Then they hiked back to their car; she in a black dress and six-inch heels, he in a suit and tie. Mary Palmer’s hair was undone, tossed about in the gusting wind as they trudged past burning palm trees.
“I’ll never forget this,” she said. “I don’t know what I’ll look like or smell like when I get there. But I’m a fan of Lucille Ball, and this is so Lucy.”
In addition to the 91 Freeway, the fire had shut down parts of the 241 tollway, where there were reports that some motorists had abandoned vehicles to escape thick smoke.
A separate fire closed part of the 57 Freeway near Brea, where homes also were reported destroyed. About 1,200 acres had been scorched in Orange County by late afternoon and towers of smoke and ash spread as far away as Long Beach. The losses in Anaheim Hills were still being tallied, but earlier, 14 homes were listed as destroyed or damaged in Corona and at least 30 had burned in Yorba Linda.
Meanwhile, firefighters were still battling a massive fire in the northern San Fernando Valley, which prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles County. Police announced this evening that they had arrested several suspected looters in the area and warned they were heavily patrolling burned and evacuated neighborhoods.
The greatest damage in the Valley was reported in the Oakridge Mobile Home Park near Sylmar, where more than 500 homes were destroyed in the so-called Sayre blaze that started late Friday. The Los Angeles Police Department sealed off the community and declared it a potential crime scene. Investigators were conducting a systematic search of the gutted homes, which were evacuated by police and firefighters just ahead of flames.
“We feel pretty comfortable that LAPD and fire were able to get everyone out,” Ed Winter, assistant director of the Coroner’s Office said this evening. Among those who lost everything at the mobile home park were Linda Pogacnik, 63, and Nodonda Baldwin, 56, retired Los Angeles Unified School District bus drivers who pooled their savings to buy a 1,500-square-foot mobile home.
Crying uncontrollably at a Sylmar High School shelter, Pogacnik said, “My street -- ashes. . . . It was a dream. We had a view, trees, a yard and neighbors. We felt so safe there. It was a perfect place for an old retired woman.”
The evacuees at Sylmar High were among 10,000 residents ordered from their homes as more than 1,000 firefighters used water-dropping helicopters, bulldozers and engines from across Southern California to try to halt the erratic march of the blaze as it hopscotched west and south toward thousands of homes.
That fire more than doubled in size today to 6,500 acres, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at an early-afternoon briefing. “We’ve never lost in recent times anything close to this number” of homes, he said, referring to the mobile homes. The fire was 20% contained; officials hoped that the advance of the blaze into the previously burned area of last month’s Sesnon fire would allow firefighters to get the upper hand.
But Los Angeles Deputy Fire Chief Mario Rueda added, “These are still very dangerous winds.”
In addition, a fire that began Thursday night in Santa Barbara County, destroying more than 100 homes, was 40% contained this morning. Fire officials there warned that the Tea fire continued to threaten about 1,500 homes, and many neighborhoods remained under mandatory evacuation orders.
In the Valley, the major traffic corridors converging near the Sayre fire -- the 5 and 210 freeways and California 14 -- were shut down for much of the day as flames jumped the freeways. By this evening, most of the closures in the area were in the process of being lifted.
On a day with warnings of extremely high fire danger and a forecast of low humidity and unusually high temperatures, the blazes stretched firefighting resources. In the San Fernando Valley, gusts up to 70 mph drove horizontal flames through canyons and limiting the ability of large water-dropping planes to join the battle.
Villaraigosa declared a local emergency shortly before 8 a.m., calling the winds “treacherous.” Rolling blackouts caused by the fire briefly interrupted city power supplies.
About 600 firefighters were on the lines by early morning, and 18 aircraft were in use to fight the fire.
Towering columns of smoke spread across western Los Angeles County.
American Red Cross officials reported that 300 people had gone to the temporary shelter at Sylmar High School, 100 to John F. Kennedy High in Granada Hills and 71 to San Fernando High. Today an additional shelter was opened at Chatsworth High School.
Authorities this morning said three firefighters had suffered minor injuries, and one civilian was taken to a hospital for smoke inhalation.
“The fire is ripping and tearing through everything,” said Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael Bowman.
“Our No. 1 priority right now is life, and people have to get out of the path of the fire,” said John Tripp, incident commander for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “We have citizens that are in harm’s way right now, and that is our priority.”
A Los Angeles County fire official said most of the property losses were in the area near Olive View Medical Center. Firefighters there waged a dramatic battle to protect the hospital early this morning as patients were taken to upper floors to escape smoke pouring into the lower floors.
Backup power was restored at Olive View shortly before 4 a.m. The most critically ill patients had been moved to Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, Huntington Hospital in Pasadena and Glendale Adventist Medical Center. Authorities did not issue a mandatory evacuation until about 1:30 a.m., directing residents to Sylmar High School and San Fernando High School. Many residents had already realized the danger.
“Basically it was chaos and panic,” Anne Moore said at Sylmar High. “At the same time people were trying to get out, others were trying to get closer to gawk.”
Assistant Chief Donald Frazeur of L.A. Fire Department warned people not to visit the burned areas.
“We are encouraging Angelenos not to come to this area, to avoid this area. . . . We need these roads clear,” he said. “This is a large area, this is a heavily concentrated area, and there are a lot of people standing around watching this instead of leaving.”
Sahagun, Olivarez-Giles and Connell are Times staff writers.
Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Jason Felch, Ruben Vives and James Wagner contributed to this report.