As California fires rage, crews search for bodies

As California fires rage, crews search for bodies

16 November 2008

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USA — Despite slower winds which allowed a renewed air assault on massive wildfires in Southern California, blazes still raged in four counties Sunday afternoon forcing more evacuations in several neighbourhoods.

While no deaths have been reported during four days of destruction, flames have ripped through close to 1,000 homes and nearly 50,000 people have been evacuated.

Meanwhile, downtown Los Angeles was shrouded in a smoky haze Sunday, sparking fears of deteriorating air quality.

In Orange County, residents faced widespread devastation Sunday afternoon after fires ripped through bone-dry bush, leapt over freeways and razed homes and apartment buildings.

“I’m just seeing a lot of burned fields, smoke, burned down houses,” said Orange County resident Nicole Gephardt.

“This is crazy knowing this is my community and it looks like a war zone.”

Santa Ana winds were gusting at 62 kilometres per hour on Sunday, which was about half the speed recorded on Saturday when a massive wildfire erupted in the Los Angeles foothills community of Sylmar, Calif., the National Weather Service said.

With calmer wind conditions, firefighters were able to prevent the fire from moving further into Orange and Riverside neighbourhoods as the day progressed.

While about half of the 50,000 evacuees were allowed to return home Sunday, newer fires flared and imperiled about 3,500 homes.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had declared a state of emergency over the weekend, said the past few days had been “very tough” for residents.

“We had the perfect storm — high winds, high temperatures and it is very, very dry.”

‘It was like matches’ says Schwarzenegger

In Sylmar, the damage caused by fire has been immense, with 500 mobile homes destroyed at the Oakridge Mobile Home Park. Nine single-family dwellings and 11 commercial buildings have also been destroyed.

On Sunday afternoon, search crews aided by trained dogs inspected the trailer park looking for people who may have died in the fire.

No bodies had yet been found after about one-third of the homes were searched.

“Fire raged through that park so quickly there was no way of stopping it. It was like matches,” Schwarzenegger said.

Police also warned that they were still dealing with several missing persons reports.

Linda Pogacnik was one of the residents who lost her home in Oakridge Mobile Home Park, which she described as “the Beverly Hills of mobile home parks.”

She said she lost old books of photographs and other materials key to a scrapbooking hobby that were “going to be all I did for the rest of my life.”

Santa Barbara Fire

In Santa Barbara County, where the first of the recent wildfires started on Thursday night, officials said 106 houses were burned to the ground in the city of Santa Barbara and another 77 burned in the wealthy community of Montecito.

Montecito is home to many Hollywood stars including Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Douglas and Jeff Bridges.

By Saturday evening, the Santa Barbara fire was considered to be about 40 per cent contained and about half of the 5,400 evacuees were permitted to return to their homes.

Since Thursday evening, the wildfires in Southern California have destroyed an estimated 800 mobile homes, houses, apartments and other buildings and blackened an estimated 75 square kilometers of land.

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