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Tens of Thousands Flee As Fires Rage Near L.A.
10,000 Acres Consumed; Highways Closed in Sylmar Area

By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008; A08

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 15 -- Erratic, ember-blowing firestorms tore through Southern California on Saturday, consuming more than 10,000 acres, or about 15 square miles, forcing the shutdown of power in several neighborhoods and sending tens of thousands of people fleeing from their homes.

The worst was the Sylmar "Sayre" wildfire, which charred more than 8,000 acres of the northern San Fernando Valley, fanned by winds of up to 75 mph that sent the flames jumping over Interstate 5 and 210 and shut down a handful of other roads.

Hundreds of houses were destroyed by the blaze, including about 500 in a mobile home park. Thousands of structures remained under threat with the fire 20 percent contained. Six firefighters and one civilian had been injured, according to media reports.

Other fires burned in Palos Verdes, Brea and Carona, spreading to Yorba Linda and later Anaheim Hills in Orange County.

Temperatures above 90 degrees, low humidity and powerful Santa Ana winds that sent embers flying through the air fanned the firestorm and sparked additional hot spots in neighborhoods and rugged hillsides. Tanker planes were grounded because of the strong winds.

Firefighters from across the state, who began battling the blaze Friday night with helicopters and bulldozers, numbered more than 1,500 by Saturday morning, said Capt. Mike Brown of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

"We plan ahead, but when you've got a fire as large as this one being fanned by the fuels that we have and the winds that we have -- makes things very difficult to combat," Brown said. "This is nonstop."

In Carona, about 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles, fires burned more than 800 acres and destroyed 12 structures, said Lynette Round of the Orange County Fire Authority, before it headed toward Yorba Linda. About 30 houses were destroyed there.

Steve Sprenger, whose home was among those destroyed, said he tried to put out the flames at the back with a fire extinguisher before grabbing photos and fleeing with his wife and two children. His mother, who saw his house burn down on television, broke the news to him by phone.

"The fire is so hot, it's so intense, with the smoke and the ashes," Sprenger said. "I did what I could."

What Southern Californians were calling the Freeway Complex blaze jumped the 91 freeway -- where some drivers moved through black smoke and others abandoned their cars -- before exploding into the Anaheim Hills on Saturday afternoon, forcing 3,100 mandatory evacuations. Massive plumes rose from the raging flames in orange and red flickering bursts as firefighters rushed to the area, not knowing how bad the damage was.

In Sylmar, the fierce, western-moving flames produced massive white-brown clouds of smoke and licked at power lines, threatening to send rolling blackouts across the area. The flames prompted the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to shut down transmission lines.

Outages and blackouts were reported in Sherman Oaks, Northridge and Granada Hills. Traffic lights on surface streets shut off, further slowing traffic, and some people in blackout areas were reportedly trapped in elevators. Anticipating further blackouts, officials pleaded with residents to conserve energy and not use air conditioners or appliances.

About 165 homes in Sylmar were reportedly destroyed, and thousands of structures were threatened. In the Oakridge Mobile Home Park, flames melted street signs, rendering them illegible, and devastated about 500 residences. Officials declared the area a crime scene; arson investigators were on the property, they said.

"When you walk around the areas that were devastated, it looked like hell today," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) said at a news conference Saturday. Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles County.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) also declared one in the city of Los Angeles.

A handful of evacuation centers were opened and quickly filled. Horses were moved by the truckload to stables outside the area.

One Sylmar hospital, Olive View Medical Center, transferred 18 babies and 10 adult critical-care patients, some on ventilators, out of the hospital overnight as flames surrounded the building and the hospital's backup generators gave out, a hospital spokeswoman said. The power was restored about 5 a.m. Saturday, she said.

Along the Palos Verdes Peninsula, about 25 miles south of Los Angeles, a fire burned about 10 acres before firefighters and water-dropping helicopters contained it, said Inspector Daryl Jacobs of the Los Angeles County Police Department. No one was injured, and no structures were destroyed, Jacobs said.

Saturday's blazes follow the still-burning Tea fire that started Thursday night in Montecito, an area of Santa Barbara about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles. About 800 firefighters are battling that blaze, which forced more than 5,400 evacuations, injured 13 and was connected to one death.

Smoke from the fires was so thick that nearby firefighters and reporters wore goggles and face masks, unable at times to look in the direction of the blaze. Because of the "very unhealthful" air quality, officials asked residents in parts of the San Fernando Valley and Santa Clarita, and Ventura and Riverside counties, to stay indoors with the windows shut.

Last month, fires whipped by Santa Ana winds killed two people, destroyed thousands of homes and burned more than 27,000 acres statewide.

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