Fires relentless in southern CA

Wildfires continued their relentless march across the Southern California landscape Monday in one of the worst conflagrations in more than a decade.

BY PJ HELLER | SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA | October 28, 2003



"It was 90 degrees outside but it looked like it was snowing"

—Jane Ronnfeldt


Wildfires continued their relentless march across the Southern California landscape Monday in one of the worst conflagrations in more than a decade.

By midnight Monday, the fires, stretching from the Mexican border to north of Los Angeles, had consumed nearly 500,000 acres, destroyed at least 1,300 homes, forced thousands more residents from their homes and left at least 15 people dead. Damage was expected to be in the billions of dollars.

Ten major fires continued to burn out of control in Ventura, San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties as firefighters battled walls of flames. Little progress was reported in containing any of the fires. Several smaller blazes were reported on Monday, stretching already thin firefighting resources even further.

In Simi Valley northwest of Los Angeles, firefighters battled to keep flames from spreading across the 118 freeway and into populated residential areas. Officials said that in a worst case scenario, the fire could spread into Los Angeles County and burn to Malibu and the Pacific Ocean.

Evacuees, meantime, continued to stream into the nearly two dozen emergency shelters. An estimated 500 people arrived at the evacuation center set up in a hangar at the San Bernardino International Airport, bringing the population there to more than 1,500. Some evacuees said they expected they would be in the shelters for a week. More evacuations continued throughout the region into Monday night.

The Salvation Army set up six canteens to provide meals to both evacuees and firefighters. Salvation Army officers (pastors) were also providing pastoral crisis counseling. Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN) was providing communications between Salvation Army response teams and support communication for firefighters, police and emergency responders, officials said.

Gov. Gray Davis requested additional firefighting assistance from Nevada and Arizona and activated the National Guard. President Bush designated the four counties as a major disaster area, which will make financial assistance available to residents and businesses.

Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger said he planned to travel Tuesday to Washington, D.C., to ensure that federal assistance will be made available quickly.

The fires continued to bog down travel throughout the region, with roads and highways closed and air traffic in and out of Southern California airports severely delayed.

An air traffic control tower in the San Diego area that had to be evacuated, bringing air traffic to a virtual standstill on Sunday, was scheduled to be operational by early Tuesday morning.

Smoke and ash continued to fill the air, prompting health officials to issue warnings to the public.

“Everyone in heavy smoke areas should limit their exposure to smoke by limiting sports and other vigorous activities, particularly avoiding strenuous outdoor activities,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the Los Angeles County health officer. “Also, it is a wise idea for children in the areas with the most smoke to play indoors rather than outdoors. Residents in the heaviest fire areas should cover their mouth and nose with a wet cloth to reduce inhalation of smoke.”

Residents said the ash in the air was so thick that it looked like winter.

“It was 90 degrees outside but it looked like it was snowing,” said Jane Ronnfeldt of Arrowhead Credit Union in San Bernardino.

Numerous schools and businesses closed for the day and were expected to remain closed again Tuesday. California State University at Northridge cancelled classes Monday afternoon and evening because of the smoke from the fires raging in the San Fernando Valley. The campus was not directly threatened by the fire “but made the closure decision as a precautionary measure to protect the health and safety of students and employees,” it said.

A decision on whether classes would be held Tuesday was expected to be made before dawn.

Cal State San Bernardino was scheduled to reopen residence halls on Tuesday with classes and other activities resuming on Wednesday.

Estimates put the cost to the state of fighting the fires at upwards of $100 million.

Officials said they expected that most of that money would be reimbursed by the federal government.

Firefighters, meantime, were hoping that a forecast calling for cooler temperatures and an easing of the dry, hot Santa Ana winds in the next few days would allow them to make progress fighting the blazes, several of which were said to be deliberately set. Authorities were seeking two men in connection with the so-called Old Fire in San Bernardino County.

Insurance companies said they were just beginning to assess the damages caused by the fires. Church World Service said it also would be assessing the impact the fires had on uninsured and minority communities to determine future deployment and response.

Davis predicted that damages would be in the billions of dollars, surpassing the $1.7 billion from the 1991 Oakland Hills fire in northern California. That blaze killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,200 residences.


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