THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BREA, Calif. - Calmer wind Sunday aided firefighters battling wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes in Southern California, forced thousands of residents to flee and blanketed much of the region with choking smoke.
There was "devastation I've never seen before," said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The fires had blackened more than 75 square kilometres since Thursday in parts of Los Angeles County, Riverside and Orange counties to the east, and Santa Barbara County to the northwest. More than 800 homes and apartments had been destroyed.
No deaths were reported, but police brought trained dogs Sunday morning to search the rubble of a mobile home park where some 500 homes were destroyed. They were focusing on mobile homes where cars still parked in front.
Even areas far away from the flames were affected as poor air quality forced many people to stay indoors. Organizers cancelled a marathon in Pasadena in which 8,000 runners had planned to participate.
Sunday's easing of the fierce Santa Ana wind allowed firefighters to set backfires in efforts to block the main fires from advancing into hillside neighbourhoods.
The most threatening blaze had charred more than 40 square kilometres of Orange and Riverside counties since erupting Saturday and shooting through subdivisions entwined with wilderness parklands. By midday Sunday, multimillion-dollar homes were being threatened in Diamond Bar in Los Angeles County as the fire pushed north.
Early Sunday, the wind pushed flames dangerously close to a church and adjacent mobile home park in the Olinda Village area north of Yorba Linda, but firefighters were able to beat it back and only one mobile home was lost.
Billy Bagsby, an inmate firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the flames suddenly shifted direction around 2 a.m.
"It was like the church was protecting itself," Bagsby said.
That fire had destroyed 119 homes in the communities of Corona, Yorba Linda and the Anaheim Hills area of Anaheim. In addition, 50 units of an apartment complex burned, Orange County fire spokeswoman Angela Garbiso said. Flames also destroyed the main building of a high school in the Orange County city of Brea.
Apartment resident Melody Ma, 24, said she took her sister to piano lessons Saturday morning, when the fire's smoke appeared to be far away, then found she couldn't return home.
"There's things you can't replace like photos and stuff," said Ma, bursting into tears in a shelter.
Capt. Leonard Grill, a 20-year veteran of the Riverside County Fire Department, watched for flaring embers in a Yorba Linda neighbourhood late Saturday.
"It's gotten worse and worse every year. I can't keep track of them anymore," Grill said of the region's wildfires. "These used to be the out-of-the-ordinary fires, once-in-a-career kind of fires. Now they're every year. "
Six firefighters from various agencies were injured in the blaze, including four Corona firefighters hurt when flames swept over their engine, Garbiso said. Two of the Corona crew members required hospital treatment but were released.
About 80 kilometres to the northwest, a fire in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley had spread across 38 square kilometres and had destroyed more than 500 homes and 11 commercial buildings. Firefighters reported the Sylmar fire 30 per cent contained Sunday.
The mayor and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in the Sylmar area, which lost 500 residences when flames blasted by 110 kilometres-an-hour wind overwhelmed firefighters early Saturday. The park was home to many elderly residents.
"What you see is a devastation I've never seen before," said Villaraigosa, promising to do all he can to help residents. "We're going to rebuild, make no mistake about it."
Fire officials estimated that at the peak of the Sylmar fire, 10,000 people were ordered to evacuate. However, many evacuation orders were lifted Saturday night, Fire Department spokesman Ron Haralson said. Five looting arrests were reported.
Among those who lost homes in the Sylmar fire was Linda Pogacnik, who said that after decades of driving a school bus full of noisy kids, she finally bought her dream house at "the Beverly Hills of mobile home parks."
"It had this beautiful oval bathtub, and just a few nights ago I lit candles and put on soft music and got in," she said, sighing with the memory. "The moon was full, and it made it look like the eucalyptus tree outside had little white lights."
She left with only her dogs, some clothes and a few essentials.
About 150 kilometres northwest of Sylmar, an eight-square-kilometre fire in the upscale Santa Barbara County community of Montecito was 75 contained Sunday morning. County spokesman William Boyer said 130 homes were destroyed in the city of Santa Barbara and 80 burned in adjacent Montecito, some of them multimillion-dollar homes with ocean views.
More than half of the 5,400 evacuees there had been allowed to return home by Saturday night. At least 25 people were injured in that fire.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Geographic location: California, Southern California, Los Angeles County Santa Barbara County Riverside Sylmar Yorba Linda BREA, Calif. Anaheim Orange County Pasadena Santa Ana Diamond Bar Olinda Village Brea Montecito San Fernando Valley Oakridge Mobile Home Park Beverly HillsTop of page