Federal Help Sought in Deadly Fires

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

Wildfires driven by hot Santa Ana wind flashed into gigantic waves of flame that devoured entire neighborhoods, choking the sky over Southern California with smoke and ash Monday and killing at least 13 people in the state's deadliest conflagrations in more than a decade. An estimated 30,000 homes were endangered and more than 825 already had been destroyed.

From the Mexican border to the suburbs north of Los Angeles, large sections of the region were under siege Monday by six major fires and several smaller ones. The death toll was the state's worst since the 1991 fire in the Oakland hills of Alameda County that killed 25 and destroyed more than 3,200 homes and apartments. All of the fatalities happened since Saturday.

Airline travel was disrupted, major highways were blocked and some schools were closed. Monday night's pro football game between the Chargers and Dolphins was shifted from San Diego to Arizona.

At least one of the fires was believed to be a result of arson.

"That's an evil move. What kind of fun is that, to put so many lives in danger," said Steven Herrera, 41, of Pinecrest.

Gov. Gray Davis asked President Bush to declare Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties disaster areas to qualify them for federal aid. Bush pledged Monday to help "in any way we can."

The blazes triggered a harrowing flight to safety for thousands of residents, many of whom had little time to collect cherished possessions before escaping, along with hospital patients and prison inmates.

"I was grabbing wet towels. Fire was at our feet. It was blazing over our heads and burning everywhere," said Lisza Pontes, 43, recounting her Sunday morning escape from a fire in San Diego County.

In San Bernardino County, a blaze called the Old Fire, which had destroyed more than 400 homes, torched 25 more when it jumped a road and moved into the heavily forested town of Crestline, fire information officer Candace Vialpando of the U.S. Forest Service said Monday.

The wind subsided for a time during the night but picked up again Monday morning in San Bernardino County, Vialpando said.

The Santa Ana wind season usually stretches from September through February, with October often the strongest. The rainy season could start any time but heavier rainfall is not likely until January.

The blazes had charred more than 330,000 acres, or 500 square miles - almost half the size of the state of Rhode Island - of dense, dry brush and trees. More than 7,000 firefighters battled the spreading flames.

Shortly before 6 a.m. Monday, an 80,000-acre blaze in suburban Simi Valley, 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles, jumped a highway and came within yards of several homes before firefighters began to get the upper hand. Schools in the city of 110,000 people were closed Monday because of the fire, which already had destroyed six homes.

Nine people had been killed by the 100,000-acre Cedar Fire in San Diego County. About 260 homes, ranging from modest to expensive, were destroyed.

The San Diego County victims included two people who died inside their car as they apparently tried to escape the flames, which witnesses said moved so fast they didn't get any warning.

That fire was started Saturday near the mountain town of Julian when a lost hunter set a signal fire, authorities said. The hunter may face charges.

Another fire near San Diego killed two people, authorities said. And two men collapsed and died in San Bernardino County, one while evacuating and the other while watching his home burn, the county coroner said.

Around the congested suburbs of San Bernardino, a city of about 200,000 some 50 miles east of Los Angeles, one flank of a nearly 80,000-acre fire burned through four towns while the other flank destroyed more than 450 homes. Two fires - the Old Fire and the Grand Prix - had merged on Sunday, creating a flame front 35 to 40 miles long.

On Monday morning, the combined blaze was bearing down on the mountain hamlet of Devore, and firefighters said they expected to lose homes there before the day was over.

Authorities sought two men for investigation of arson and possibly murder in connection with the San Bernardino fires. Three looters were arrested, police said.

Another 80,000-acre fire, northwest of Los Angeles in Ventura County, threatened approximately 2,000 homes and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Fire forced the evacuation of a Federal Aviation Administration control center in San Diego, disrupting air travel across the nation. Some airlines canceled flights into the region.

The National Football League moved Monday night's football game between the Chargers and Miami Dolphins from Qualcomm Stadium, which is being used as an evacuation center, to Tempe, Ariz.


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