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Winds keep CA fires moving

More than 20,000 people evacuated, shelters care for fire survivors


Los Angeles area residents faced some of their worst nightmares Saturday night as wildfires driven by hurricane-force winds reduced nearly 1,000 homes and apartments to ashes and more than 10,000 people fled the fast-moving fires.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency for the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles County, CA, where more than 800 homes were destroyed and thousands more have been damaged by fires driven by dry, gusty winds, that have reached more than 75 miles per hour in some cases. Temperatures in the 90s kept conditions perfect for spreading fires.

In Sylmar, where a mobile home park with more than 500 homes was reduced to ashes, more than 10,000 people have been evacuated as the fire threatens hundreds more homes. It is the first time in nearly 10 years that homes within the city have been burned by wildfires.

Ellen Platz, whose husband is the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Foothills in Sylmar, said their church was planning to open as a shelter, but they were forced to seek shelter themselves with relatives who are out of the danger zone.

"We had to get out ourselves," she said. "Thank God we had relatives we could stay with. I hope everyone finds a place to go."

Early Saturday, fires swept though the Oakridge Park mobile home development in Sylmar, which is in northern Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Police Department has determined that fire, which completely destroyed some 500 residences, was deliberately set. Arson investigators have cordoned off the ashy remains of the community and proclaimed it a crime scene.

The Los Angeles Fire Department is combing through the area to make sure all the residents of that community escaped. Because many of those who were evacuated simply left to find shelter elsewhere it is hard to say if everyone got out. Fire officials are checking each home site to make sure there is no one left in the rubble or to account for anyone who might not have escaped.

Capt. Steve Ruda of the LAFD said he doesn't know if everyone got out. While he hopes they did, he has to make sure by going over the site carefully.

"Did everyone get out? We don't know," he said.

A short distance away in Santa Clarita, pastor Paul Montoya of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church said his parishioners would be asked to take up a special offering that would be given to Catholic Charities so they could help those who had been affected by the fires.

Director Gregory Cox of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles said they will begin work once it is safe to go to the fire-torn areas and see what the needs of the community. Both the Presbyterian Disaster Response and The United Methodist Committee on Relief were evaluating how they can best help survivors.

Several apartment complexes were reported to be damaged early Sunday morning. Fire officials said 50 apartments in the Cascade Apartments complex were destroyed.

More than 1,000 firefighters were battling the blazes from the air with water hauling helicopters and on the ground with bulldozers and engines from dozens of fire departments from all over Southern California. The flames were jumping erratically and burning quickly. The total number of acres that were still burning on Saturday afternoon had more than doubled from the day before to in excess of 14,500 acres.

Officials said late Saturday they believed the fires were about 10 percent contained but that number changed quickly all the time as the roaring, hurricane force winds were pushing the fires in unpredictable directions at breakneck speeds.

Wildfires in June of this year cleared out a great deal of dead vegetation, which often serves as fuel for fires. In a way, the earlier fires are helping keep this newest batch of blazes from spreading beyond the area because there is little left to burn in some places.

One death and dozens of injuries in Santa Barbara County may be related to the fires there which destroyed at least 150 homes. Thousands of people have been evacuated from nearly 5,500 homes, which could be in the path of the fire. Many of the schools in the county have been closed until the fires are under control.

The American Red Cross has opened three shelters in the San Fernando Valley area. There are three shelters set up at high schools, including the one in Sylmar, at John F. Kennedy High School in Granada Hills and at San Fernando High. School. Chatsworth High School is now a separate shelter set up for people with pets.

In addition to threatening homes, the fire has been burning power lines in the valley. High temperatures in Los Angeles have led people to use much electricity to stay cool. Those things have combined to cause interruptions in power service throughout the area. Los Angeles city officials said they might have to resort to rolling blackouts to ensure continued service to customers in the city.

Red Flag Warnings remain posted throughout the area and high temperatures and winds are expected through Monday.

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