California, USA — Wind-whipped firestorms destroyed more than 700 homes andbusinesses in Southern California on Monday, the second day of its onslaught,and more than half a million people in San Diego County were told to evacuatetheir homes.
The gale-force winds turned hillside canyons into giant blowtorches from SantaBarbara to the Mexican border. Although the worst damage was around San Diegoand Lake Arrowhead, dangerous fires also threatened Malibu, parts of Orange andVentura counties, and the Agua Dulce area near Santa Clarita.
A water dropping helicopter is dwarfed against a large plume of smoke advancing up the hillside in Malibu. Photo: Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times
The Saugus area is whipped by strong winds as the Buckweed Fire burns along a ridge line. Photo: Ane Cusack / Los Angeles Times
Volunteer firefighters from Running Springs try to halt the spead of flames in Green Valley Lake, a community about 12 miles east of Lake Arrowhead. Photo: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times
A plume of smoke from the Malibu fire drifts out over the Pacific Ocean. Photo: Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times
Late Monday night, new blazes were menacing homes near Stevenson Ranch and inSoledad Canyon in northern Los Angeles County. The Soledad Canyon fire burnedmultiple mobile homes and evacuations were underway, fire officials said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, calling it “a tragic time for California,”declared a state of emergency in seven counties and redeployed CaliforniaNational Guard members from the border to support firefighters. Schwarzeneggerstressed how much California officials have learned since the devastatingwildfires of October 2003, which raged over much of the same terrain.
But as the day wore on, it became clear that any hard-earned knowledge was nomatch for natural forces overrunning the ability of firefighters to controlthem.
“The issue this time is not preparedness,” said San Diego City CouncilPresident Scott Peters. “It’s that the event is so overwhelming.”
Pat Helsing, 59, evacuated her home in the Scripps Ranch area, much as she haddone four years ago.
“It seems scarier this time,” she said. “The fire is everywherein San Diego now. You don’t know where you can go to escape it.”
By late Monday, Southern California fires had burned 269,000 acres — about 420square miles — and destroyed at least 892 buildings. Remarkably, only oneperson was known to have died, although it was possible that more fatalitieswould be discovered. At least 37 people had been injured, including 17firefighters.
Near Malibu, where fire Sunday had burned into the center of town, the focusMonday was in the hills, where firefighters on the ground and in the air weretrying to prevent flames from marching across Las Flores Canyon and into TopangaCanyon.
“It’s trying to move toward Topanga Canyon, parallel to the coastline,”said Manhattan Beach Battalion Chief Frank Chiella, near the Rambla Pacificoarea. Firefighters were attempting to stay ahead of the fire and funnel ittoward the ocean.
“If you let it get wide, that’s a lot more homes it could take out,”Chiella said. “We’re doing what we can to keep it from getting bigger;we’ve only lost one home today.”
Two fires on opposite sides of Lake Arrowhead had burned about 2,000 acres byMonday evening, destroying 138 buildings and prompting the evacuation ofhundreds of residents from mountain resort communities.
In northern Los Angeles County, the Buckweed fire had swept through 35,000 acresby Monday evening, destroying 20 homes and two bridges, and causing theevacuation of about 15,000 people. It was burning toward Magic Mountain, but waspartially contained.
In Orange County, where a suspected arson fire stretched the resources of localcrews, residents along Calle Cabrillo in Foothill Ranch were packing cars andpreparing to evacuate.
“We’ve been through this before,” Karen Royer said. “I believe inGod, and I know everything will be good.”
Minutes later, a plume of dark smoke lifted over a ridgeline.
“Can I revise that?” she said. “Now I’m scared.”
The Orange County blaze, called the Santiago fire, was leaping relentlessly in asoutheasterly direction, burning ominously close to the Foothill Ranch andPortola Hill communities. About 500 firefighters and two water-carryinghelicopters stood between the fire and hundreds of homes, Battalion Chief KrisConcepcion said.
Several firefighters escaped major injuries when they deployed fire-retardantsurvival tents as they were overtaken by flames along Santiago Canyon Road.