Sea breezes help firefighters gain upper hand



LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. (AP)—Cool sea breezes helped firefighters gain ground Thursday against a Southern California firestorm that destroyed nearly 600 homes and burned 116,000 acres. Stubborn strips of flames persisted as some residents returned home to find their dreams gone up in smoke.

A procession of fire refugees walked through the smoke along a coastal highway into Laguna Beach, the posh coastal resort in Orange County half-gutted by a wall of flame that destroyed more than 300 homes.

Authorities blocked the Pacific Coast Highway, allowing residents to return only on foot or bicycle. Hundreds of people abandoned their cars to make the trip.

‘‘It’s just total devastation,’‘ John McMurray said as he poked through debris that was once his home. ‘‘This whole neighborhood is burnt. We haven’t been able to salvage anything.’‘

Valerie Coleman dabbed tears with a towel as she watched smoke rise from the remnants of the apartment she lost Wednesday.

‘‘I have nothing,’‘ she said.

President Clinton declared disasters in five counties and federal agencies organized help for 25,000 displaced. Gov. Pete Wilson offered a $50,000 reward for arrests of arsonists, and police patrolled neighborhoods to prevent looting.

Cool sea breezes signaled an end to the hot, dry Santa Ana condition that on Wednesday fanned 13 blazes into firestorms from Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, to the U.S.-Mexico border. The National Weather Service warned that the gusty winds that blow through Southern California every fall from the deserts east of Los Angeles could return Saturday.

A growing army of firefighters seized the chance to steadily encircle the fires. Some of the fires raged out of control; others were partially contained; few of the fires threatened more residences.

Altogether, dozens of firefighters were hurt, and two remained in serious condition Thursday. Thousands of others were exhausted by all-night struggles.

Firefighter Jeff Genoway, 22, caught just two hours of sleep on the driveway of a house during a 48-hour shift.

‘‘It’s not hard to sleep on concrete when you’re extremely tired,’‘ said Genoway, stationed in the Laguna Hills overlooking the Orange County coastline.

Just north of Laguna Beach, fire damaged the ritzy Emerald Bay community but spared homes owned by Warren E. Buffett, named America’s wealthiest man by Forbes magazine, and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth.

Among the victims was country singer Dwight Yoakam, whose Malibu ranch was destroyed Wednesday when flames roared down a Santa Monica Mountains canyon to the sea. Neighboring homes owned by Jack Nicholson and Dick Clark were spared.

By Thursday night, firefighters had contained the 10,000-acre fire in Laguna Beach, 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Police said the cause was arson.

Arson also was suspected in a 33,111-acre fire in Ventura County that destroyed 19 structures, including a million-dollar home in the Lake Sherwood area that burned in a flare-up late Thursday.

A transient who set a fire while trying to keep warm was arrested in connection with a 5,500-acre blaze that consumed 115 homes in Altadena, 15 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains.

In Washington, Clinton sent Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt to California.

‘‘We’ll offer what we can to help fight the fires, to meet the needs of the victims, to stand with the people who are already doing so much,’‘ Clinton said.

Witt promised his agency would respond quickly, opening offices as early as Saturday.

Thousands of federal, state and local firefighters were mobilized to help 6,500 firefighters already on the lines, Wilson’s office said.

U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard C-130 Hercules aircraft joined the battle, thundering low over fire lines and spraying fire retardant like crop dusters.

At Santa Anita Park, races were canceled Thursday when officials declared that smoke from the wildfires had created ‘‘unhealthy running conditions’‘ for the horses.

In San Diego County, the San Diego Wild Animal Park reopened a day after a fire there scorched 50 acres on the eastern perimeter. No animals were harmed.

Firefighters also worked to contain five major blazes in Riverside County that charred 32,800 acres and damaged or destroyed 101 structures. Fires in San Bernardino County torched seven structures and blackened 4,860 acres.

Other Ventura County blazes charred about 10,000 acres, while 15,000 acres and 11 structures were blackened in San Diego County.

A 10,000-acre fire raged out of control Thursday in Cleveland National Forest, 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles, forcing residents of several mountain hamlets to flee.

Fewer than 200 firefighters were available to fight the blaze until Thursday morning, when 430 people were on the lines, said Jim Lanning of the Forest Service.

‘‘We had nothing to send,’‘ he said.