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CA fires leave destruction

Raging wildfires, driven by erratic and gusty Santa Ana winds, continued to burn out of control throughout Southern California.

BY PJ HELLER | SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA | October 26, 2003


"We’re all doing our best to help you get you through this."

—Gov. Gray Davis


Raging wildfires, driven by erratic and gusty Santa Ana winds, continued to burn out of control throughout Southern California on Sunday night, leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake.

“This is the worst fire we have faced in California in 10 years,” said Gov. Gray Davis.

Forecasters said the winds, high temperatures in the 90s and low humidity were expected to continue at least until Wednesday.

The Santa Ana winds, with gusts of more than 50 mph, kept air tankers grounded for much of Sunday.

More than 5,000 people sought refuge Sunday night in some 22 evacuation centers set up by the American Red Cross.

Mandatory evacuations continued throughout the evening as the fires continued to consume homes and acreage, filled the air with smoke and ash, forced the closure of major roads and freeways and snarled air traffic nationwide.

Some residents escaped with blaze with only the clothes they were wearing.

School officials in many areas announced that classes were cancelled Monday. San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy urged businesses to give employees the day off to keep them off the roads.

“The best thing we could do for San Diego is for all employers to let their employees stay home tomorrow (Monday) with their children who will be home from school,” he said.

Both Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric urged customers to conserve electrical power. SDG&E said 27,000 customers in 32 communities were without power Sunday. Edison said 4,000 customers in Ventura County were without power and others could face scattered blackouts on Monday.

San Diego officials also asked residents to conserve water.

“In order to maintain enough water pressure to fight fires, residents must immediately conserve water,” they said. “Use only what is absolutely necessary for health or cooking or for fire suppression. This is an urgent situation and we need the cooperation of all city of San Diego residents and businesses.”

The National Football League announced that Monday night’s game between the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins, slated for Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego — which is being used as an evacuation center — would be played instead in Tempe, Ariz.

Officials reported that at least 14 people had been killed, more than 700 homes have been burned — with thousands more still threatened — and some 277,000 acres blackened. At one point Sunday afternoon, the fire threatened the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley but the building escaped damage.

That blaze in Ventura County exploded on Sunday, growing from 47,150 acres in the morning to more than 80,000 acres by nightfall in Simi Valley, Moorpark and Thousand Oaks. It was only 5 percent contained and could spread into Los Angeles.

The largest fire, which has already burned 100,000 acres, was raging in eastern San Diego County. Two other fires were also burning in the county. The Federal Aviation Administration control tower in the area was evacuated, causing a major disruption to air travel in and out of Southern California airports. Southwest Airlines cancelled its 152 flights into the region Sunday.

In San Bernardino County, wildfires burned 50,000 acres. Communities in the San Bernardino National Forest were also ablaze.

Numerous smaller fires were reported in the Southern California area, including one in Riverside County about 60 miles north of San Diego and 85 miles south of Los Angeles. Major fires were burning in the counties of San Diego, Ventura, San Bernardino and Los Angeles, stretching firefighters to the limits.

An estimated 250 firefighters responding to the Temecula fire in Riverside County had been battling other blazes in the region before being sent there, officials said.

“They’re tired,” one fire official said. “In some cases they’ve come straight from the fires in Los Angeles and San Bernardino.”

The Temecula fire had consumed 1,500 acres and destroyed six structures. Residents in the areas were evacuated.

Davis, speaking at an evacuation center Sunday afternoon at San Bernardino International Airport (formerly Norton Air Force Base), announced he was adding Los Angeles and San Diego counties to the state of emergency he had previously declared for Ventura and San Bernardino counties.

Davis said the move would hopefully pave the way for President Bush to declare the counties a “major disaster” and clear the way for federal assistance.

Davis, a Democrat who was ousted in a bitter recall election earlier this month, said he had briefed Republican Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger about the situation.

“This is a team effort,” he told the crowd. “We’re not Republicans today. We’re not Democrats today. We’re all Californians. We’re all pulling together. We’re all doing our best to help you get you through this.”

Davis said he was also making an assessment whether additional personnel were needed from outside the state to help in the firefighting effort.

“If it is, I am personally going to call the governors of Arizona and Nevada and ask them for assistance,” he said, noting that California sent firefighters to those states in 2001 to assist firefighting efforts there.

That help could be critical if the fires in the San Bernardino area spread to forest areas that have been decimated by bark beetles, which have left innumerable trees dead.

Faith-based organizations, meantime, were offering assistance to evacuees.

Among them was Grace Chapel across from the San Bernardino Airport, which housed more than 68 senior citizens and others with breathing problems in its air-conditioned building. The church also bused about 50 evacuees who wanted to attend Sunday morning services from the airport to the church. The airport hangar housed 1,000 people.

“We gave them hope to believe,” Pastor Jeff Morehead said of his sermon.

“God is not in our houses,” Morehead said. “God is not in our cars that are burning. God is not in all the pictures that we may lose. But God is in us . . . The most important thing is our soul.”

Morehead, who also serves as a police chaplain for the Redlands Police Department, said he had been contacted by five other faith-based leaders asking what they could do to help. Other faith-based groups brought food and clothing over to the evacuation center.

Other clergy were working with national faith-based disaster response groups, Church World Service, and the Southern California Ecumenical Council to plan a response that could help meet both emergency and long-term needs.

Morehead said if anything good was coming out of the fires it was that people were coming together to help one another.

“Californians have always pulled together in hard times,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that we’re coming together when something like this happens. But usually the best comes out of people in hard times. . .”


Related Topics:

Neighborhoods face fire rebuilding

Impact of CA fires may be long-term

Survivors struggle, help others


More links on Wildfires

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