USA — Deadly wind-driven brush fires roared out of the foothills and canyons on the northern fringe of Los Angeles on Monday, destroying dozens of homes and threatening hundreds of more dwellings.
In Southern California’s first big wildfires of the season, a homeless man was found dead with his dog beneath a highway overpass swept by flames, authorities said.
Another person was killed in a collision on a freeway engulfed in smoke as police scrambled to shut down the road.
Late in the day, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, putting additional state resources at the disposal of local fire departments.
The first of two blazes erupted early on Sunday on the edge of the Angeles National Forest and by midday on Monday had charred roughly 5,000 acres of tinder-dry brush and chaparral in the northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley.
Authorities ordered the evacuation of about 1,200 residents from some 450 homes threatened by flames and embers fanned by gale-force Santa Ana gusts blowing in from the high desert, as smoke billowed into the air.
A separate brush fire flared on Monday in the foothills to the west and quickly consumed 3,000 acres, prompting the evacuation of hundreds more homes. Authorities said one flank of that blaze was threatening an area of about 1,500 homes.
“It’s a very dangerous situation,” said Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman.
He cited forecasts of winds expected to reach storm force overnight and remain strong for days, creating the potential to push the fire across the San Fernando Valley “and perhaps even across to the Pacific Coast.”
More than 1,000 firefighters battled the flames, along with helicopters and planes dropping water and fire retardants.
‘THE CLOTHES ON MY BACK’
The twin blazes marked the first major wildfire outbreak in Southern California since 30 raged across the region last October, killing at least 12 people, forcing record evacuations of more than 500,000 people and destroying or damaging some 2,000 homes.
Authorities said about 30 mobile homes and at least one house were gutted in the first of this week’s fires, while the second blaze destroyed a number of dwellings. An exact tally of the losses was not immediately available.
“I didn’t get to take anything with me, other than the clothes on my back,” said evacuee Rita Yates, 69, who lives alone and was ordered out of her mobile home by firefighters before dawn on Sunday.
On Monday, she was staying at a makeshift evacuation center set up in a high school gymnasium.
Another evacuee, Glenn Bell, 50, said he got out of his mobile home early on Monday as flames were lapping at it.
“The sparks were flying down on us,” he said, recalling how he and other evacuees broke open a locked gate blocking their escape route. “And as I’m busting the gate … I see the cypress trees that are right next to our house on fire.”
The fires prompted authorities to shut down a freeway and several other roads, along with about 10 public schools and a college campus in the area. A commuter rail line also was shut down because of poor visibility due to ash and smoke.