Mobile home park is ground zero of Calif. wildfire

Mobile home park is ground zero of Calif. wildfire

16 November 2008

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USA — Fire Capt. Andrew Ruiz and his crew tried to save scores of mobile homes at Oakridge Park early Saturday morning. After daybreak, amid the wreckage and ashes, just one was left.

The three-bedroom mobile home at 508 Sombrero was a sort of consolation for Ruiz and his three-man crew, who reached the Sylmar trailer park shortly after midnight as a wildfire pushed closer to homes. They and other firefighters initially were able to keep the flames away from homes but were overwhelmed when the wind picked up, gusting to more than 70 mph.

“It was like a blow torch after that,” Ruiz said Saturday, ash and soot ringing his lips.

Walls of flames 50 feet high swept across the park. Cypress trees guarding the gated entrance lit up first. Then the fire leaped from one prefabricated home to the next in a matter of minutes.

When the water ran out, firefighters fell back, abandoning hoses that melted into the asphalt. They piled elderly residents into water tenders and fire trucks and retreated. Some needed medical help for smoke inhalation.

The park had about 600 mobile homes, but only 124 were left standing Saturday, Los Angeles fire Capt. Steve Ruda said. The loss was near total in the area where Ruiz’s crew worked.

“We gave a good fight,” Ruiz said.

As the sun rose above a thick, dark curtain of smoke, the smoldering ruins of foundations emerged. Little was recognizable, save for a few metal chairs on patios next to destroyed homes.

Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton said he is concerned that some people may have died at the mobile home park, noting that many elderly people lived there. He said police must wait until the ground cools to bring in search dogs.

Powerful Santa Ana winds continued to beat down, carrying ash and twigs from the devastated landscape. Elegant cacti spewed smoke and mail boxes hung from charred posts. Cars and motorcycles were reduced to piles of ash and molten steel.

Outside the park, Anthony Aguilar, 23, peeked over a wall at the devastation. His friend’s grandfather had lived in the park and Aguilar helped evacuate him overnight.

“There was some elderly people who had no idea what was going on,” Aguilar said. “One neighbor who lived across the street is 95. She was oblivious, we had to pound on her door.”

Many residents fled last month when a huge blaze threatened the area in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. This time, however, there was little time to grab personal belongings.

“This time everything happened really quickly and now we’ve lost everything,” said David Munoz, 48, who learned his entire street was leveled.

Firefighters were so overwhelmed that police officers had to carry out a 300-pound woman who was unable to leave her bed.

“I can personally tell you there was fire in the window of her bedroom while we were doing this,” said Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Michael Moore.

Later in the day, anxious residents waited behind a fire line set up outside the mobile home park to learn the fate of their homes.

Jo Ordaz, 50, and her family evacuated at 3:30 a.m, thinking it was probably a false alarm. They grabbed only essential documents and a few photographs.

“I’m just feeling devastated, I don’t know,” Ordaz said, soot collecting in her ears and around the edges of the dust mask. “We’re just waiting.”

Ordaz said the park was a beautiful place, “like a little city in itself,” with a pool, tennis courts and basketball courts.

Firefighters closed the mobile park to investigate the cause of the fire.

Ruiz and his crew returned to 508 Sombrero, the lone structure they saved. Its garage door was still white and an American flag was pressed up against the front window.

Homes of its size would typically be easy to save with a 500-gallon water tender, but many were lost because of the intensity of the winds. Firefighter Steve Venegas said they would have needed 10 times as much water.

The exhausted crew said the home was saved in large part because an empty lot next to it provided a buffer from flames.

“Just the chance to save one structure feels good,” Ruiz said. “It feels like you did your job.”

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