Agonizing game of hit and miss

  Haya El Nasser


  USA Today


  Page 03A

  (Copyright 1993)


  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

  been in."


  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

  Buzz Aldrin.


  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

  Ann Stewart


  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

  by arson.


  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

  Wednesday evening.


  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