USA: California fires destroy 1,000 homes, winds ease

By Jill Serjeant and Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Wildfires hop-scotched around Southern California on Sunday although calmer winds slowed flames that have destroyed almost 1,000 houses, forced tens of thousands to evacuate and turned some neighborhoods into scenes resembling war zones.

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 after flames ripped through tinder-dry brush. The fires jumped freeways and reduced mobile homes, multimillion dollar mansions and apartment blocks to ashes in about a dozen communities.

"I'm just seeing a lot of burnt fields, smoke, burnt down houses," said Nicole Gephardt as she looked out toward the Orange County area of Yorba Linda. "This is crazy knowing this is my community and it looks like a war zone."

Officials said wildfires have scorched more than 20,000 acres (8,000 hectares) over the past four days in foothills north of Los Angeles, in Orange County canyons, and in the hilly celebrity enclave of Montecito near Santa Barbara. The fires broke out there on Thursday and incinerated 210 homes before being bought under control.

The causes of the fires were not known.

Hot, gusting winds eased on Sunday, allowing firefighters to create fire breaks with bulldozers and make better use of water-dropping aircraft.

Evacuation orders were lifted for more than half the estimated 50,000 people who fled their homes, but new fires threatened more than 3,500 houses. Fire officials said it would take days to extinguish all the blazes.

"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," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told a news conference.


In a Los Angeles mobile home park in Sylmar, where fire devastated 500 trailers overnight, police using nine cadaver dogs began a search for bodies of elderly 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," Schwarzenegger said.

Police said they had reports of missing persons but had accounted for only 134 residents.

"At this point no human remains have been found," said Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Michael Moore. "At this point we have no missing persons and no evidence of loss of life."

In Orange County, Janet Cunningham, 91, said she was given five minutes to leave her Yorba Linda home at dawn.

"I was so nervous. Five minutes is so little time. I didn't think. I didn't know which way to turn first. I just had eye surgery on Thursday and I'm not supposed to drive," she 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," said Cunningham, who went to a rescue center but believed her 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 children grabbed their shoes and their dog Princess and evacuated their home 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 center.

White 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.

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.

(Editing by Chris Wilson)


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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