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Authorities: One of California wildfires 'human caused'

  • Story Highlights
  • Accidental causes eliminated in Santa Barbara County blaze, official says
  • More than 35,000 acres scorched in southern California since Thursday
  • Officials: Los Angeles County fire only 40 percent contained on Sunday
  • Firefighters struggle with Triangle Complex Fire in Orange County
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MONTECITO, California (CNN) -- One of three major wildfires burning in southern California appears to be "human caused," a spokesman for the state's fire agency said Sunday.

Investigators have eliminated "all accidental causes" of the fire that has destroyed 210 homes and injured two people in Santa Barbara County since Thursday, spokesman Doug Lannon said.

"We need the public's help in identifying any activity in or around the afternoon of November 13," Lannon said.

The fire has burned 1,940 acres, including a monastery and several mansions in the Montecito community, where celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, have homes. It was 80 percent contained Sunday, the state fire agency said. Video Watch expensive homes go up in flames »

Authorities believe the fire started in the Tea Garden Estate, a privately owned multi-acre property, about one mile north of Santa Barbara's exclusive Westmont College.

The two other major fires burning Sunday were in Los Angeles County and in Orange and Riverside counties east of Los Angeles. The three blazes have destroyed hundreds of homes, scorched more than 35,000 acres and forced more than 10,000 people to flee their homes since Thursday, authorities said.

Authorities on Sunday were searching the wreckage of nearly 500 mobile homes destroyed in Sylmar, one of the areas burned by the fire in Los Angeles County.

As of early Sunday afternoon, a third of the mobile homes had been searched, and "no human remains have been found," according to Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Michael Moore.

Police had not received any reports of people missing from the park. Moore said 134 residents had been accounted for, and that the others should check in with city authorities.

Los Angeles County Coroner Ed Winter said authorities believe "most of the people from this mobile home park were evacuated," and that the search was precautionary.

The Los Angeles County blaze erupted late Friday in the steep terrain of the Angeles National Forest on the outskirts of Sylmar, about 20 miles north of Los Angeles. Photo See images from the Los Angeles County fire »

That fire has burned more than 10,000 acres and is about 40 percent contained, California fire officials said Sunday.

Nine other homes and 10 businesses had been destroyed in Los Angeles by Saturday evening, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said.

Firefighters were struggling to contain the third blaze, in Orange and Riverside counties, said Lynette Round, a spokeswoman for Orange County Fire Authority. 'Insurmountable' wall of flames looms

Firefighters were hoping that strong winds in southern California would die down Sunday, helping them to quell the blazes.

"If the winds die down it will give the firefighters an upper hand on fighting this," Round told CNN on Sunday morning. "It is a wind-driven fire and with those gusty winds up to 25 miles an hour, it's giving the firefighters a really difficult time. It's hopscotched throughout the county."

Round said 168 homes were destroyed or damaged in the Orange County area. The so-called Triangle Freeway Complex Fire had also damaged a building at a high school, Round said.

That blaze, which burned more than 23,700 acres, is 19 percent contained, according to California fire officials. Video Watch residents as fire approaches their homes »

Winds -- which have joined with low humidity and unseasonably high temperatures to help strengthen the fires -- were gusting up to 80 mph Saturday. The high temperature in Los Angeles reached 92 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared states of emergency for the affected counties after the fire damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and closed major freeways.

The move frees up any state resources needed for fire-fighting, and makes the counties eligible for federal assistance grants.

In Los Angeles, Villaraigosa declared a city emergency early Saturday morning and called for the public's cooperation in conserving energy as potential blackouts loomed. Share wildfire photos, video

Augustine Reyes and his family left their home in Sylmar about 2 a.m. Saturday when they could no longer stand the oppressive heat and smoke encroaching from the hills behind their home.

When Reyes returned to survey the scene Saturday afternoon, all that remained were heaps of charred rubble.

Reyes dabbed his eyes with a bandana as he worried over how to describe the loss to his 7-year-old son.

"He's autistic and doesn't do well with change, so this is going to be very hard to explain to him," Reyes said. Video Watch residents reflect after their homes are burned to the ground »

By Saturday afternoon, people were taking refuge in evacuation shelters set up in three high schools in the area, officials said.


Horses and other large animals were taken to a makeshift shelter in Hansen Dam Park. A mobile kennel was set up at Sylmar High School, and small pets could be taken to the Mission animal shelter.

As for the Santa Barbara County fire, Lannon urged anyone who may have spotted suspicious vehicles or people in the area of the Tea Garden Estate in Montecito to call fire investigators at 951-969-2537, 951-314-0420 or 661-330-0129.

CNN's Stan Wilson and Kara Finnstrom contributed to this report.

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