Agonizing game of hit and miss
Haya El Nasser
LOS ANGELES - In the suburb of Altadena, a panicked woman screams out for
her husband through dense smoke.
Residents all around flee seconds before raging fires swallow their homes.
Luxury homes are consumed by fire within minutes. Firefighters are rushed to
emergency burn units. Nursing homes, hospitals and schools are evacuated.
Traffic snarls freeways as gusty winds drop ashes and blow choking smoke.
Hellish images of destruction flickered live on TV across the nation as more than
100 wildfires roared through southern California Wednesday.
"There were these hot fiery embers as big as half-dollars raining down all over
us," says Jeremy Putinta, 21, who stayed up all night helping a friend hose down
his roof and shrubbery in Thousand Oaks. "It was the weirdest thing I've ever
The erratic blazes - fanned by Santa Ana winds of up to 70 mph - played a cruel
game of tag with thousands of homes in hilly areas from Ventura County to the
border with Mexico. The fires - some set on purpose, some accidental - torched
some houses but spared homes on either side.
Ranchers frantically tried to rescue horses and livestock as flames chased deer
and rabbits from crispy-dry brush onto the Pacific Coast Highway. The smell of
burned eucalyptus wafted through neighborhoods.
"They said, `It's coming up the canyon! It's coming up the canyon!' " says Sandra
Bohlen, who fled her three-bedroom Altadena house seconds before it was
swallowed by flames. "We just got out of there as fast as we could. I have
nothing but what I'm wearing."
More than 320 homes and buildings were destroyed, and at least 24 people - 16
firefighters - were injured. The blazes threatened ranches and luxury homes
owned by celebrities Tom Selleck, Richard Widmark and moonwalking astronaut
Fires also interrupted power to hundreds of homes.
"This fire is giving us hell," says Los Angeles County firefighter Rob Salinas,
battling the Altadena fire. "As soon as you think you've chopped it down in one
place, it comes up somewhere else."
Among the hardest hit: the surfers' paradise city of Laguna Beach, where at least
200 homes were destroyed in less than two hours.
Early today thousands of homes in the heavily populated Sierra Madre area also
were threatened as fires roared dangerously close.
In Altadena, century-old homes were burning at an astounding pace of one every
five minutes at some point.
The inferno is the worst wildfire in California since the disastrous Oakland blaze
of October 1991. The Oakland fire destroyed 3,200 homes and took the lives of
25 people, at a cost of $1.5 billion.
"Everything, my whole life, it's gone," says a sobbing Edith Brown, watching the
smoldering remains of her four-bedroom home at the foot of San Gabriel
Mountains. "I didn't get anything out at all."
Similar refrains echoed throughout as hot spots erupted every few minutes.
With so many fires erupting, fire departments from across California had a
difficult time getting crews and equipment quickly to places like Altadena, says
Los Angeles County deputy fire chief Paul Blackburn. But winds were so strong
that added manpower might not have made much difference.
"We would have needed one firetruck at every house, and there aren't that many
firetrucks in the state of California," Blackburn says.
A shortage of water and low water pressure added to woes as tanker trucks were
forced to fill up from swimming pools.
One of the most harrowing images was of patients evacuated from a nursing
home lying on cots like war survivors, one man gasping for breath, another with
an oxygen tube dangling from his nose.
Floyd Loupot woke up at 5:45 a.m. and saw a glow over the ridge above his
house. He roused his neighbors and packed up some legal papers and a handful
of valuables. Just as he loaded his car, a tree next to his house ignited.
"Then I knew we were in trouble," says Loupot, 71, standing in the middle of
what used to be his living room. Everything was destroyed.
"If I were a younger man I'd think about rebuilding," he says. "I'm just not sure
Clarissa Winslow and her husband were jolted awake at 6 a.m. when their real
estate agent called to warn them.
"We opened up the door to our deck, and all we could see were red flames and
smoke," says Winslow. Contributing: Jonathan T. Lovitt , Vic Pollard and Sally
California wildfires at a glance: More than 100 fires, including at least 13 large
blazes, were spreading late Wednesday in California. The toll at that point: more
than 62,000 acres and at least 320 homes and other buildings. At least 24 people
had been injured, including 16 firefighters. Some of the major fires: Guejito
More than 6,000 acres burning since early Wednesday. More than 6,000 acres
burning since early Wednesday. Fire out of control. Five homes, several
outbuildings damaged, destroyed.
Yucaipa-Mentone More than 4,680 acres burning since early Wednesday. About
60% contained. Four homes and one barn destroyed. One home damaged by
downed power lines.
Thousand Oaks About 18,000 acres burning since Tuesday. At least 18 homes,
several mobile homes and outbuildings burned. Two firefighters injured. Caused
Southwest Riverside County More than 11,500 acres burning since late
Wednesday. About 30% contained. At least 39 homes damaged, destroyed. Five
civilians, one firefighter injured.
Laguna Beach At least 200 homes, many costing more than $1 million,
destroyed. All 24,500 residents evacuated. Flames consumed block after block
Altadena About 5,000 acres burning since early Wednesday. Out of control. Up
to 75 structures damaged, destroyed. Firefighter treated for smoke inhalation.
About 500 homes evacuated.
GRAPHIC,b/w,Stephen Conley, USA TODAY , USA TODAY research,The
Associated Press(Map,S. Calif.,L.A.,chart); PHOTO,b/w,Paul Sakuma,AP;
PHOTO,b/w,Bob Riha Jr.,Gamma-Liaison