Wildfires destroy hundreds of exclusive homes



Wildfires driven by searing desert winds devoured more than 57,000 tinder-dry acres in Southern California on Wednesday, destroying at least 220 homes and forcing hundreds to flee in terror from wealthy suburbs and rural hamlets.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of all 24,500 residents of Laguna Beach, 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles, as flames consumed block after block of the town Wednesday evening.

Another fire threatened the Wild Animal Park in northern San Diego County, where zookeepers evacuated 26 endangered California condors and four Andean condors.

A man was arrested for investigation of starting one fire, and authorities suspected that other destructive blazes were the work of arsonists.

By late Wednesday, 13 large fires fanned by hot, dry Santa Ana winds gusting up to 70 mph were burning from Ventura County to the Mexican border. The fires fed off vegetation baked to a crisp in the rainless summer.

Fourteen firefighters were injured, three critically.

Gov. Pete Wilson declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles County and prepared to make similar declarations for other counties.

Amid the confusion, overwhelmed firefighters ran out of water and called for reinforcements, and helicopters made daring water drops in futile efforts to douse burning homes.

Smoke and ash eclipsed the sun over downtown Los Angeles, freeways and schools were closed, and wind-borne embers picked out homes at random, quickly engulfing roofs in flame.

In Orange County, a 2,500-acre wildfire that started in Irvine raced down Laguna Canyon to the coastline, destroying an estimated 100 expensive homes and buildings in northern Laguna Beach, fire officials said.

At dusk, a separate fire in the same area raged through El Morro Beach mobile home park north of Laguna Beach, destroying at least 20 homes. Both blazes were believed to have been deliberately set, officials said.

By evening, all 24,500 residents of the 5.6-square-mile town of Laguna Beach were under orders to get out.

‘‘I’m watching the helicopters dip their buckets in the ocean to desperately try to get water and it all seems to no avail,’‘ said Laguna Beach resident Jan Fisher. ‘‘It’s really pathetic and sad here.’‘

A 13th major fire, meanwhile, had consumed 1,000 acres near Lake Elsinore in the Cleveland National Forest by late Wednesday evening.

Earlier, as many as 75 homes and buildings were destroyed or damaged in Altadena, a suburb northeast of Los Angeles in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

‘‘They said, ‘It’s coming up the canyon! It’s coming up the canyon!’ so we just got out of there as fast as we can. I have nothing but what I’m wearing,‘’ said Sandra Bohlen, whose three-bedroom Altadena home burned.

The Altadena fire was allegedly started by a homeless man trying to keep warm early Wednesday, authorities said.

Andres Z. Huang, 35, a homeless man, was arrested later in the day and booked for investigation of unlawfully starting a fire. Bail was set at $7,500.

Though firefighters had difficulty getting crews and equipment to the scene, Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief Paul Blackburn said the winds were so strong that added manpower wouldn’t have made much difference.

The Santa Ana wind condition occurs each fall when wind becomes superheated and dry as it blows across deserts east of Los Angeles through Southern California.

‘‘We would have needed one fire truck at every house and there aren’t that many fire trucks in the state of California,’‘ said Blackburn, adding it could take a week to contain the blaze.

As the 5,000-acre inferno advanced, at least 500 homes were abandoned. But some residents stayed behind to hose down roofs. A fire engine was destroyed, and one firefighter suffered smoke inhalation.

Smoke forced St. Luke Medical Center in nearby north Pasadena to evacuate 74 patients, who were transferred to other hospitals. Two convalescent homes were evacuated as flames reached their doors. Elderly residents, some on gurneys, were taken to makeshift shelters at schools.

‘‘They just pulled us all out in whatever you had on,’‘ said Cecile Pugh, 79, who at midday was wearing only a dressing gown and slippers.

In Riverside County, an 11,400-acre blaze damaged or destroyed 28 homes and buildings near Winchester. Five residents and one firefighter were injured, said Bob Blatz, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry.

In Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles, a 20,000-acre arson blaze destroyed a house and a mobile home in the Santa Monica Mountains and burned 12 miles to the ocean. Car-size boulders on the cliffs crashed onto the Pacific Coast Highway as the flames devoured the foliage that had held them in place.

Flames overran a fire engine in another Ventura County fire at Santa Susana Pass, injuring four firefighters, three critically. That blaze charred 1,500 acres and destroyed one structure.

Eight other firefighters suffered moderate injuries battling fires in Ventura County, said county fire spokeswoman Jane Nolan.

A 6,000-acre fire burned five homes in Escondido in San Diego County and threatened others.

The fire damaged some pens and burned an outbuilding at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, but the animals were safe, officials said. The condors were moved as precautions.