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USA: LA ringed by wildfires-homes, acreage destroyed

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By Steve Gorman and Anupreeta Das

LOS ANGELES/SAN FRANCISCO, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Fires whipped up by hot, gusty and erratic winds darkened Los Angeles skies on Saturday, scorching thousands of acres and hundreds of homes in the second-largest U.S. city and threatening its power supply.

More than 10,000 people were ordered to evacuate as a fire that exploded overnight on the edge of the Angeles National Forest, north of Los Angeles, barreled into the San Fernando Valley and burned more than 6,500 acres (2630 hectares).

Another fire flared southeast of Los Angeles in Orange and Riverside counties on Saturday morning, charring 2,000 acres (809 hectares) in the communities of Yorba Linda, Brea, Anaheim and Corona, and damaging or destroying more than 44 homes.

About 3,500 people were advised or forced to evacuate, officials said.

And the dry Santa Ana winds sweeping in from the desert fanned the fire in the foothills near Sylmar northwest of Los Angeles that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said had destroyed more homes than any other fire in the past decade.

"We're at the mercy of the wind. Mother Nature's not been too good to us for the last 15 hours," he said.

The Sylmar fire raged on both sides of Interstate 5, the main freeway connecting Los Angeles with the north.

Two of the five major transmission lines that supply power to the Los Angeles area were taken down because of damage to a converting station, and a third power line was damaged by heat. Natural gas and power lines were also threatened in Orange and Riverside counties.

Firefighters also continued to battle the two-day-old blaze in the celebrity enclave of Montecito, further up the coast near Santa Barbara, where 111 homes have been destroyed. The fire was about 40 percent contained, a spokesman said.

"When you walk around the areas that were devastated, it looked like hell today," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told a news conference.

Police closed down Interstate 5 and other roads as 1,100 firefighters mobilized to fight the Sylmar fire. Only about 10 percent of the fire had been contained, Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Ron Haralson said Saturday afternoon.

Mountains were engulfed in flames and dense clouds of greyish-brown smoke. Soot hung in the air, which was heavy with the smell of burning wood. Winds blowing at a steady gale-force 35 mph (56 kph) periodically gusted up to 75 mph (120 kph), helping spread the fire.

A map of the fire is at http://tinyurl.com/sayrefire.

MOBILE HOMES DESTROYED

The greatest damage was reported in the Oakridge Mobile Home Park, where the fire burned about 500 houses to the ground. About 300 people, many of them Oakridge residents who fled their homes during the night, gathered in Sylmar High School, where the American Red Cross set up relief services.

"You could see absolutely nothing," said Jackie Burns, 77, who, along with her husband, Len, fled their home at 3 a.m. as the fire raged through the neighborhood. "It was like looking into a black hole. It looked like the end of the world to me."

Some evacuees sobbed as a firefighter brought in a singed and tattered flag rescued from atop one of the houses.

"It was an absolute firestorm," said Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Steve Ruda. "Firefighters were braving 50-foot flame lengths as they swept across the mobile homes." Heat from the flames melted firefighters' hoses to the pavement, he added.

An additional 24 homes and 10 commercial structures have been damaged or destroyed. At least 5,000 more structures have been threatened, Schwarzenegger said.

California's fire season, which traditionally starts in June, has been lengthening and getting worse as the dry state adds homes in fringe areas prone to flames.

"California has fires year round," said Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, at the conference. "There really is no fire season in California any longer."

Los Angeles County, home to nearly 10 million people, has been largely spared damage this year. In October of last year 30 blazes raged across Southern California, forcing evacuation of more than 500,000 people and damaging some 2,000 homes.

Marie Larsen, 70, another evacuee who took refuge at the Sylmar school, said she grabbed her suitcase -- still packed from a month ago when she fled her home during the Sesnon fire -- and left after police officers banged on her door.

The Los Angeles area remains on alert for more fires, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "It's the dry conditions that make it perfect for more fires," he said.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman and Fred Prouser in Los Angeles, Anupreeta Das and Peter Henderson in San Francisco; editing by Jackie Frank and Todd Eastham)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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