Brush fires rip through S. California Gusts fan blazes; damage extensive

LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- Runaway brush fires carved swaths of destruction across several Southern California counties yesterday, incinerating or damaging at least 445 homes and charring about 60,000 acres of brush and timberland in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Diego and Ventura counties.

Crowning the Southland in a virtual ring of fire, the wind-whipped infernos struck hardest in the picturesque seaside resort town of Laguna Beach, 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and the upscale neighborhood of Altadena, 15 miles to the northeast.


No deaths were reported, but at least 23 firefighters and eight residents were reported injured in the 13 separate blazes.

Both the Laguna and Altadena fires were of incendiary origin. The Laguna fire was blamed on an arsonist and the Altadena one was attributed to a transient's campfire. Arson was suspected in several of the other blazes as well.


Damage was expected to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars in one of the most devastating brush fire outbreaks in memory.

In Laguna Beach, flames driven by hot, dry Santa Ana winds destroyed more than 300 homes -- many of them multimillion-dollar estates -- yesterday afternoon, leapfrogging from house to house as desperate residents abandoned valuable belongings and fled for their lives.

"The city is going up in flames," said Laguna Mayor Lida Lenney, as she packed up to leave her home. "God, what next?"

The city's entire population of 24,000 was evacuated as California Highway Patrol officers and local police joined understaffed fire-fighting teams in a losing battle to slow the advancing fire. By nightfall, homes in Laguna Canyon were ablaze.

At least 115 houses were destroyed by the early morning fire that spread rapidly through 5,000 acres in Altadena. Only hours after that blaze broke out, authorities arrested a transient who was booked on suspicion of unlawful use of fire.

The man apparently was camping in the hills when his campfire touched off nearby brush, a Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman said.

At nightfall yesterday, the winds picked up and the Altadena fire began to rage anew, striking east at the bedroom city of Sierra Madre. Hundreds of residents were ordered to evacuate. "We fully expect to lose some homes there," a U.S. Forest Service official said last night.

Other major fires charred 21,000 acres between Thousand Oaks and the Pacific Ocean, 45 miles west of Los Angeles; about 3,000 acres in Escondido, 30 miles north of San Diego, where homes were threatened and officials at the San Diego Wild Animal Park worked frantically to move endangered California condors and other species; and about 750 acres in the Orange County communities of Anaheim Hills and Orange, 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles, where nearly 30 homes were damaged, two of them seriously.


Gov. Pete Wilson declared a state of emergency and flew into Burbank Airport, meeting other elected officials at a fire command center in Pasadena.

Meteorologists said the winds -- which gusted at up to 60 mph in some areas yesterday -- were expected to diminish today but increase again tomorrow; no rain is forecast for the next seven days.

The most serious fires continued to burn out of control late yesterday. Smoke darkened the skies and white ash dusted the Los Angeles Basin like mid-autumn snow.

The Laguna Beach fire, which seemed likely to have caused the region's most extensive damage, broke out just before noon, jumped a ridge and raced south toward the exclusive enclave of Emerald Bay.

Police cars cruised down the streets of Emerald Bay just after noon, ordering residents to evacuate. Later, the evacuees stood at the edge of Pacific Coast Highway, their cars filled with pets and household goods. They peered hopefully into the smoke for a glimpse of their homes.

"I have no idea if it is still there," said Thomas McGonigal, 64, a 17-year Emerald Bay resident. "A two-and-a-half million dollar home up in smoke."


Within minutes, dozens of sumptuous houses had burned to the ground in Emerald Bay, where home values reach $10 million or more.

The less affluent suffered, too, as scores of mobile homes in the adjacent El Morro trailer park went up in flames.