October 27, 2003, Monday Late Edition - Final
Section A Page 1 Column 2 Desk: National Desk Length:1846 words
Thousands Flee as Fatal California Fires Spread
By JOHN M. BRODER; Neal Matthews, Chris Dixon and Braden Phillipscontributed reporting for this article.
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif., Oct. 26
Firestorms roared through parched forests and scrubland acrossSouthern California on Sunday, jumping into residential areas andshrouding hundreds of square miles in pungent yellow-gray smoke.
Tens of thousands of residents were forced to flee 10 rapidlyspreading blazes from Simi Valley in Ventura County in the north toSan Bernardino in the east and almost to the Mexican border in thesouth. Thousands of federal, state and local firefighters sought tocontain the fires, with little success. State fire officialsestimated Sunday afternoon that the fires covered more than 300,000acres, with the area growing hourly. The fires have claimed at least13 lives, including two people in San Diego County who were burned intheir car as they fled, the police said.
The fires contributed to a nationwide disruption of air trafficwhen a Federal Aviation Administration office in San Diego thathandles air traffic for all of Southern California was shut downabout 9 a.m.
As of late Sunday, more than 850 homes were confirmed destroyed,but officials said many more structures had probably been consumed inareas that firefighters had not yet reached. More than a dozenshelters had been set up across the region for those who lost theirhomes or were forced from them.
Ash and soot blew across roadways like a dusting of dirty snow.Closer to the fires, the ground was covered in more than a half-inchof ash. The sky was so dark with smoke in some areas that sensorsturned on automatic outdoor lights. Smoke could be seen and smelledall the way to the coast.
Hundreds of miles of freeways and mountain roads were closed toall traffic except firefighters going in and evacuees coming out.
The flames were driven by brutal Santa Ana winds gusting to 60miles an hour and made worse by extremely low humidity. The mostdestructive fire, in the San Bernardino National Forest north andeast of here, was fed by more than a million mature pine trees killedover the past year by a bark beetle infestation and drought. The firefront in the national forest was nearly 40 miles long, United StatesForest Service officials said.
''This is a fire not to be taken lightly,'' said Stanton Florea, aforest service spokesman in San Bernardino. ''It is just exploding atthe higher elevations and moving down.'' He could give no estimatewhen the fire would be brought under any level of control.
Officials and residents knew that the forest was a tinderbox.Arson is suspected in several of the blazes.
''Everyone knew it was just a matter of time,'' said Tom Baker ashe stood outside the smoldering ruins of his home in the Del Rosasection of San Bernardino, which was devastated by the fire late onSaturday. ''We were all collectively holding our breaths, but ourluck didn't hold.''
Mr. Baker, a retired arson investigator for the San Bernardinopolice, said that he and his wife, Lydia, watched the flames pourdown the hillside above his neighborhood and leap into the crowns ofpalm trees along his street. They rushed to salvage valuable papersand photographs as the winds blew flaming palm fronds into his yard,finally igniting the garage as the couple fled in their car. Houseson either side of the Bakers' home were intact, but the fire leveledthe house directly across the street.
''We're over the shock and crying for now,'' Ms. Baker said. ''Wegot some things out, but there's a lot of stuff still in there. It'sjust a fiasco.''
Gov. Gray Davis declared a state of emergency in San Bernardinoand Ventura Counties late on Saturday. He added Los Angeles and SanDiego Counties on Sunday and asked President Bush for federalassistance. Mr. Davis said the fires were the worst in California inat least a decade.
Steve Maviglio, the governor's press secretary, said that thestate had mobilized units of the California National Guard andassigned six helicopters to firefighting duty. ''We've put all theresources we have to work,'' Mr. Maviglio said, ''but nature batslast.''
The state is urging residents of Southern California to conserveenergy, as many households are running their air-conditioning tocontend with the smoke and heat. The fires threatened electricaltransmission facilities providing power to 25 percent of thepopulation of the region, a Southern California Edison spokesmansaid.
Aerial tankers were grounded for much of the day Sunday because ofthe high winds and poor visibility, forest service officials said.The only aircraft working on Sunday afternoon were heavy-lifthelicopters dropping water, but their efforts were largely fornaught.
Paul A. Turk, a spokesman for the aviation administration inWashington, said that fire had come dangerously close to the SouthernCalifornia Terminal Radar Approach Control, on the Marine Corps'Miramar Air Station, the site of two fires in the San Diego area.
Mr. Turk said the center's functions had been transferred to acenter in Palmdale, about 50 miles north of Los Angeles in the MojaveDesert, which normally handles high altitude air traffic.
At 3 p.m., the F.A.A. downgraded the restrictions to a delay,which was still in force into the early evening. The stoppage anddelay affected aircraft bound for or leaving all the major airportsin the region, including Los Angeles International Airport, LindberghField in San Diego and the airports in Long Beach, Santa Ana, Burbankand Ontario. Mr. Turk said those actions caused the backups acrossthe nation.
The fire affecting the air traffic center was one of several thaterupted in San Diego County late Saturday, with uncontrolled brushfires nearly encircling the city.
Chief Jeff Bowman of the San Diego Fire Department said there weresix fire fronts in the county, from the Mexican border to ValleyCenter, near Escondido. Fire had jumped Interstate 15 and was burningalong the runways at the Miramar air station, heading south and westtoward heavily populated neighborhoods.
Weather officials said San Diego had not had any measurable rainin 174 days. The fires are raging up bone-dry canyons choked withbrush and exploding into the dry leaves of eucalyptus groves. Burningballs of tumbleweed driven by high winds swept the fire across 10lanes of I-15 in central San Diego County.
Sheriff Bill Kolender of San Diego County said the fires in thecounty had consumed 108,000 acres, destroyed 136 homes and killed 11people. Fire department officials said none of the four main fires inSan Diego County were under control.
Mr. Kolender said the biggest San Diego fire began on Saturdaynear the mountain town of Julian when a lost hunter lit a signalfire. The hunter was arrested and may face charges.
At a news conference at 5:10 p.m., Mayor Dick Murphy of San Diegoappealed to employers in the countyto allow their employees to stayhome on Monday. ''Everybody not essential to city services shouldstay off the freeways,'' Mr. Murphy said.
The San Diego City schools superintendent, Alan Bersin, announcedthe closure of all schools on Monday.
The National Football League moved Monday night's San DiegoChargers-Miami Dolphins game to Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.,from Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego because of the fires.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a statement Sunday night thatthe City of San Diego had advised the league that it could not playthe game in Qualcomm.
In Ventura County, north and west of Los Angeles, two wildfiresraged uncontrolled over 50,000 acres near the cities of Simi Valleyand Moorpark.
A Ventura County Fire Department spokesman said that at least sixhomes had been destroyed and eight more damaged but that the numberwas expected to rise. The department fears the fire will jump intothe Santa Susanna Mountain Range and reach the community of ThousandOaks. But they do not have the equipment yet to construct afirebreak, officials said.
''We have enough resources to protect structures, but we haven'tbeen able to build perimeter control,'' said John Foy, spokesman forthe Ventura County Fire Department. ''We have some bulldozers and weare trying to get more. We are getting help from northern California,but it is hard to get them here fast enough.''
There is some concern that the fire could threaten the RonaldReagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. The authorities haveassigned a team to protect the property.
At a Red Cross shelter for evacuees at the San BernardinoInternational Airport, families huddled on cots, wondered when theymight return home and worried about what they might find when theydid.
Jim Robertson, a heavy-equipment company owner who lives inCrestline, was able to save only his business files and his family'stwo bulldogs, Humphrey and Bogart. Mr. Robertson said that eventhough he had removed the beetle-infested trees from around hisproperty, he doubted that his home of 15 years was still standing.
''We had a scare last year, but this is insane,'' Mr. Robertsonsaid. He said the mandatory evacuation on Saturday night wasterrifying and chaotic. ''It was horrible, like a scene from a movie.There were people fighting at the gas pumps.''
Elsewhere at the airport evacuation center, San Bernardino Countyanimal control had its hands full trying to manage dozens of petsbrought by evacuees.
''It's been a long day,'' Keith McIntosh, an animal controlofficer, said. ''We're trying to make this stress-free for theanimals, which is difficult to do given the wind and heat. We have 43dogs, 30-something cats, birds, turtles, fish, five or six rats and acouple of guinea pigs.''
The authorities were also struggling to move hundreds of horsesfrom the path of the fires.
Images: Photos: Eric Brue retreated from a house yesterday as afire crossed a swath of San Diego. More than 300,000 acres wereaflame in Southern California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/San DiegoUnion-Tribune, via Associated Press)(pg. A1); Terry Ritter in theremains of his home in San Bernardino yesterday. The three-bedroomstructure was destroyed on Saturday night. ''I tried to put it out,but the wind was blowing too hard,'' Mr. Ritter said. At right, ahelicopter makes a drop on a fire in the Highland area of SanBernardino. (Photo by Kurt Miller/The Press-Enterprise, viaAssociated Press); Firefighting crews in the Scripps Ranch area ofSan Diego run for more hoses in an effort to save some remaininghomes near others already lost. (Photo by Dave Gatley for The NewYork Times); (Photo by Monica Almeida/The New York Times)(pg. A16)
Map of California highlighting the locations of the various fires.(pg. A1)