USA — Powerful winds stoked three major wildfires on Tuesday morning after destroying dozens of homes, forcing thousands to flee and killing two people.
The fires have charred more than 20 square miles in suburban Los Angeles and northern San Diego County in three days, with the fiercest blazes burning in the San Fernando Valley.
More than 2,000 firefighters and a fleet of water- and retardant-dropping aircraft battled fierce flames Tuesday morning. Intense winds caused a fire in the west end of the valley to double in size from 5,000 to nearly 10,000 acres overnight, fire officials said.
A second fire at the northeast end of the valley was 70 percent contained on Tuesday, Inspector Paul Hartwell said. Officials reduced the acreage to 4,800 acres from 5,300 acres.
About 3,000 homes remain evacuated and winds could return in the afternoon, Hartwell said.
Santa Ana winds were gusting at 50 mph in parts of the valley Tuesday morning, county fire officials said.
Authorities lifted an evacuation order for about 1,000 homes threatened by a wildfire on Camp Pendleton Tuesday but said another 500 homes sitting on the border with the Marine base are to remain vacated.
On the base, Marine Cpl. Priscilla Vitale said the fire has scorched more than 3,000 acres and was about 25 percent contained Tuesday. The fires that started Monday on the base’s training ranges were not caused by any type of military training, Vitale said.
“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.”
Traffic was snarled when the 118 Ronald Reagan Freeway closed in both directions for the second time as flames and smoke approached the roadway, the California Highway Patrol said. It reopened after about an hour Tuesday morning.
The freeway was the scene of a fatal wreck Monday when a tow truck rear-ended a car and killed the driver. California Highway Patrol Officer Leland Tang said traffic stalled because firefighters were going by as fire neared the route.
A second fatality was discovered Monday in the 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.
Authorities confirmed more than three dozen mobile homes burned in the west end of the valley and 19 structures some of them homes were destroyed at the northeast end. 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.
A fire broke out near the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego County Tuesday morning and forced the evacuation of about 300 homes in the town of Campo, said Sheriff’s Lt. Anthony Ray. It had burned about 150 acres on both side of Highway 94 but no structures have been burned and no one has been injured, Ray said.
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.
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.
An estimated 1,200 people were evacuated. Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mark Savage said 37 or 38 mobile homes were destroyed and 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.