California Wildfires Cover 5,500 Acres

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Southern California's 2004 fire season opened Monday with firefighters battling blazes that covered more than 5,500 acres and forced hundreds of people to evacuate.

The largest was a 2,500-acre fire in Riverside County. But five other blazes were scattered across Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego counties, as temperatures climbed to over 100 degrees in some places.

Several firefighters among the thousands on the job were treated for injuries, including heat stroke, dehydration and smoke inhalation.

Authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation of several homes in the path of the Riverside County fire in the hills south of Temecula. They previously advised residents of about 100 homes to evacuate.

The blaze destroyed a home and a research facility used by researchers at the University of California, Riverside.

"They are just totally burned to the ground. All that's left is a couple of pieces of steel," said Rick Cook, emergency services coordinator for Riverside County. Witnesses said other homes in the area also burned, but fire officials said they would not be releasing new structure damage information until Tuesday morning.

Mike Witham, 57, fled his trailer in the area in a pickup truck loaded with his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and black Labrador Oscar.

He said he stopped to help rescue dogs in the area but winds blew flames across both sides of state Highway 79, trapping him along with Temecula police officers and firefighters. They waited for four hours inside a nearby home as firefighters battled back the blaze, he said.

"I will tell you, I was one scared puppy," Witham said.

He said he saw at least three sheds and three or four mobile homes burn. "You could hear the propane tanks exploding," he said. Fire officials could not immediately confirm the damage.

Three additional fires burned in Riverside County. A 400-acre blaze in the El Cerrito area destroyed an abandoned building and threatened a number of homes Monday evening. A blaze north of Temecula burned 400 acres but was expected to be fully contained by Monday evening.

Elsewhere, a fire in the Los Padres National Forest, in Santa Barbara County, grew to about 100 acres within two hours.

Firefighters had about 75 percent containment on a 50-acre blaze that broke near a Los Angeles County jail in Castaic, said fire Capt. Mark Savage.

Firefighters said they managed to slow a blaze that burned 1,825 acres near the Camp Pendleton Marine base in San Diego County. It was about 75 percent contained, with no structures damaged and no injuries reported.

A fire that started Sunday just east of Lake Elsinore in Riverside County had scorched 350 acres, and was about 75 percent contained by Monday evening. One structure was burned.

The start of the fire season was declared three weeks earlier than last year because of dry weather and a tree-killing bark beetle infestation.


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