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California battered by 3 wind-whipped wildfires


The Associated Press

Tuesday, October 14, 2008; 5:21 AM

LOS ANGELES -- Powerful gusts stoked three major wildfires in Southern California early Tuesday that have charred nearly 12,000 acres, destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate neighborhoods in suburban Los Angeles and northern San Diego County.

Two people died Monday as flames raged in the northeastern and western San Fernando Valley, including one motorist killed in a rear-end freeway collision after a looming fire stopped traffic.

More than 2,000 firefighters and a fleet of water- and retardant-dropping aircraft battled the 5,300-acre Marek Fire at the northeast end of the valley and the 5,000-acre Sesnon Fire in the Porter Ranch area at the west end. Combined, more than 15 square miles had burned.

Winds were blowing at 50 mph in parts of the valley by 1 a.m. Tuesday, with gusts of up to 80 mph possible in higher elevations, county fire officials said.

Another 3,000 acres were scorched by Tuesday morning in Camp Pendleton, forcing the evacuation of more than 1,400 homes at the huge San Diego County Marine base and in nearby Oceanside, according to the bases's Web site. The fast-growing blaze had yet to burn any structures on the base.

Firefighters had little to no containment of any of the fires early Tuesday.

"The fire wants to make its way to the coast, and we're going to do our level best to stop it," said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey. "Two-thirds of our department is on the line."

The California Highway Patrol expected badly snarled traffic Tuesday morning as sections of the 210 Foothill and 118 Ronald Reagan Freeways were likely to remain closed for another morning rush hour.

Authorities confirmed more than three dozen mobile homes burned in the Marek Fire, and 19 structures _ some of them homes _ were destroyed by the Sesnon Fire. Commercial sites burned in both fires.

Fire officials alerted other communities to the west in the Ventura County city of Simi Valley and south to Malibu, 20 miles away, as an ominous plume streamed over neighborhoods and far out to sea.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and urged residents to be prepared for anything.

"Winds are causing fire conditions to change by the hour, which is why it is so important that residents in the areas surrounding these wildfires heed warnings from public safety officials to evacuate," Schwarzenegger said.

Firefighters on Monday were struggling with the resurgent, day-old Marek Fire when a new blaze erupted at midmorning a few miles to the west on Oat Mountain above Porter Ranch and quickly grew as winds blew from the northeast, spitting embers among homes.

Residents were not allowed to drive into one of Porter Ranch's gated communities, so they parked their cars, ran to their homes and carried out whatever they could carry in pillow cases, in their arms, sacks and suitcases. Some ran out clutching paintings.

In nearby Twin Lakes, a neighborhood of narrow streets perched above the 118 Freeway, the fire raced through the community of about 95 homes, destroying at least four.

Matthew Vitiello, 46, stuck it out with his two dogs as embers rained down around him and a nearby home burned. Asked why he decided not to evacuate, Vitiello pointed to a pine tree across the street.

"If that sucker goes, then it's time for me to go," he said.

A fatality was discovered Monday at the Marek Fire, an area where neighborhoods abut rugged canyonlands below the mountainous Angeles National Forest. The victim was a man who appeared to be a transient living with a dog in a makeshift shelter, officials said. Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa said it would take some time to identify the victim.

Another man was killed in a fiery rear-end collision on the 118 Freeway. California Highway Patrol Officer Leland Tang said traffic stopped because firefighters were going by as fire neared the route.

An estimated 1,200 people were evacuated due to the Marek Fire, which was just 5 percent contained. Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mark Savage said 37 or 38 mobile homes were destroyed by that blaze. Various industrial sites also burned.

"We could have had an army there and it would not have stopped it," Battalion Chief Mario Rueda said. "Wind is king here, it's dictating everything we are doing."

The dry and warm Santa Ana winds typically blow into Southern California between October and February, priming vegetation for fires by slashing moisture levels. Last October, fires fanned by Santa Anas destroyed 2,196 homes and burned a combined 800 square miles in Southern California.

There was better news up north. Firefighters almost completely extinguished a wildfire that scorched more than half of San Francisco Bay's largest island, and were busy putting out the final hot spots.

The blaze on Angel Island charred 380 acres since it started Sunday, and fire officials expected it to be fully contained by Tuesday evening.


Associated Press writers Greg Risling, Thomas Watkins, Alicia Chang, Terence Chea, Christina Hoag, John Rogers and Chelsea Carter contributed to this report.

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