Wind-whipped fires raze dozens of Southern California homes
October 23, 1996
MALIBU, California (CNN) -- Firestorms driven by furious Santa Ana winds continued to rage along the Southern California coast early Wednesday, scorching more than 35,000 acres, damaging over 100 houses and buildings, and injuring several people.
Gov. Pete Wilson proclaimed a state of emergency for Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties and sent a letter to President Clinton asking that he declare a major disaster in all three counties.
"I have determined that these fires are of such severity and magnitude that effective recovery is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local government, and that supplementary federal assistance is necessary," Wilson wrote in the letter.
The governor ordered his Office of Emergency Services to send almost 400 fire engines, six helicopters and six other aircraft to Southern California to help fight the Harmony fire and two other major fires in the county.
Six firefighters were hospitalized Tuesday evening as they fought a fire burning in the beachfront community of Malibu, near Los Angeles.
All were taken by helicopter to UCLA Medical Center, and three will likely be transferred to the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, a representative for the burn center said.
Meanwhile, thousands of firefighters struggled on several fronts to surround the flames.
Residents flee flames
Only 20 percent of the Malibu blaze had been contained, and several hundred firefighters were on the way from Arizona and New Mexico to join the 2,500 already there. "It was really rough at times, with winds of 40 to 50 miles per hour," said Steve Klein, a firefighter from San Diego who worked overnight.
Property losses so far have been low in Malibu, with only five houses, a mobile home and three vehicles damaged. The fire has burned more than 14,000 acres.
The fire apparently began when power lines fell onto a eucalyptus tree Monday night, creating sparks which started the fire, according to Los Angeles fire Captain Steve Sanchez.
Malibu spokeswoman Sarah Maurice said it was reminiscent of the deadly 1993 firestorms that killed three people, blackened 200,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 structures. But Malibu learned its lesson from 1993, and has implemented routine fire drills and other precautions, she said.
Flames consumed dry brush, advancing toward dozens of expensive Malibu houses, as about 1,000 residents packed up a few valuables and their animals and then evacuated. Some stayed behind, using lawn sprinklers and hoses to water down their roofs.
As actress Shirley MacLaine prepared to leave her home, she suggested that the Malibu area code should be changed to 911.
Inspector Rob Graham of the Los Angeles Fire Department said firefighters hoped to get the fire under some control by Tuesday night, assuming that the winds did not once again change the fire's course.
State of emergency
The 8,600-acre Harmony fire continued to burn out of control Tuesday evening near Carlsbad, California. More than 500 firefighters are battling the blaze, which has destroyed 98 structures and injured two people. Portions of Carlsbad, San Marcos and Encinitas are affected, officials said.
"Our hearts and prayers go out to the individuals who have lost their homes in this terrible tragedy," Wilson said in a written statement after visiting the Harmony area.
Carlsbad resident Jim Boylan watched the fire advance on his property, then beat a quick retreat. "The flames just advanced down the hill, across the street," he said. "And there was no stopping it."
"... I was periodically running to the front door and opening it to check on the advance of the fire, and the last time I went to the front door and opened it I was just greeted by this horrific wall of heat and smoke and whatnot, and I realized at that point it was time to leave," Boylan said.
The Harmony fire has been labeled "suspicious" by investigators. No further details were available.
Firefighters had the Harmony fire about 48 percent contained, with full containment expected by 6 p.m. PDT Wednesday. Full control of the fire is predicted by Thursday night.
Correspondents Jennifer Auther and Greg LaMotte contributed to this report.
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