USA — Fires raged for the fourth day around Southern California on Sunday but lighter winds brought hopes of relief from blazes that have destroyed almost 1,000 houses, from mobile homes to multimillion-dollar mansions, and forced some 50,000 people to flee.
A pall of towering, choking smoke blocked out the sun in much of the Los Angeles area and in Orange County to the south-east as flames ripped through tinder-dry brush, reducing homes and apartment blocks to ashes in about a dozen communities.
In one of the worst-hit areas — a Los Angeles mobile home park in the foothills of Sylmar where fire devastated 500 trailers overnight on Friday — police using cadaver dogs began a search for bodies of elderly or disabled residents who authorities fear may not have been able to get out in time.
“Fire raged through that park so quickly there was no way of stopping it. It was like matches,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told a news conference on Sunday.
“This has been a very tough few days for the people of Southern California. We had the perfect storm — high winds, high temperatures and it is very, very dry,” he said.
Officials said wildfires have scorched more than 20,000 acres (8,000 hectares) in foothills north of Los Angeles, in hillsides in Orange County to the south, and in the celebrity enclave of Montecito near Santa Barbara where fire broke out on Thursday and incinerated 210 homes before being bought under control. The causes of the fires were not known.
Gusts of up to 80 miles per hour (128 km per hour) that have sent embers flying for miles over the last three days died down on Sunday, although most of the blazes are likely to take several days to extinguish.
FIVE MINUTES TO EVACUATE
“It’s not as much of a wind-driven fire today,” said Los Angeles County fire Inspector Sam Padilla. “Winds are sustained at 15 to 20 miles per hour (24 to 32 km per hour) with gusts up to 30 miles per hour (48 kph),” he added, saying the high winds on Saturday limited the use of water-dropping aircraft.
In Orange County, more than 40,000 residents fled at short notice as fire jumped freeways and flames towered hundreds of feet (meters) in the air.
Janet Cunningham, 91, said she was given five minutes by a police officer to get out of her Yorba Linda home at dawn on Sunday.
“I was so nervous. Five minutes is so little time. I didn’t think. I tried to get my clean panties out of the drawer. I didn’t know which way to turn first. I just had eye surgery on Thursday and I’m not supposed to drive,” Cunningham told Reuters.
“(The police officer) said I’d have to drive myself out. I don’t know how I didn’t have a heart attack. I must be so strong.” Cunningham, who went to a rescue centre, said she believed her home of 38 years was safe. “I just hope and pray it will be any minute and everything will be OK and I can go home,” she said tearfully.
Stephen Lord and his two kids grabbed their shoes and their dog Princess on Saturday night.
“We were just sitting there, starting to pack a few of our things, when they said we had to get out. We still don’t know if the house is OK,” Lord, 39, told Reuters, looking stunned as he sat with his family in his truck at a rescue centre.
Thick ash fell on cars and acrid smoke filled the air as far as 25 miles (40 km) away from the fires. Health authorities urged the elderly and children to stay indoors and said no one should be exercising outdoors.
California’s fire season, which traditionally ran from June to October, has been a year-round menace for several years because of perennial drought. The state’s booming population has led to homes being built in rugged canyons and on hillsides surrounded by brush and forests.
In October 2007, 30 blazes raged across Southern California for almost a week, forcing evacuation of more than 500,000 people and damaging some 2,000 homes.