- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Wildfires that have burned for days merged into walls of flame stretching for miles in parts of Southern California yesterday, leaving 13 persons dead, burning 650 homes and frustrating overmatched firefighters who worked relentlessly against fierce winds.

The state’s largest fire, in eastern San Diego County, caused at least nine deaths, including two persons who died inside their car as they apparently tried to escape the flames, San Diego Sheriff Bill Kolender said.

“We were literally running through fire,” said Lisza Pontes, 43, who escaped the fire with her family after the roar of flames woke them at 3:45 a.m.

As they drove off, they saw a neighbor’s mobile home explode.

“I was grabbing wet towels. Fire was at our feet,” Mrs. Pontes said. “It was blazing over our heads and burning everywhere.”

The 100,000-acre fire started Saturday near the mountain town of Julian when a lost hunter set off a signal fire, authorities said. The hunter was detained and may face charges.

Another fire near San Diego that started yesterday killed one man and destroyed 20 homes while burning through about 1,000 acres, said Lora Lowes of the state forestry department.

Fire also forced the evacuation of a Federal Aviation Administration control center in San Diego, disrupting air travel across the nation.

The flames drew much of their strength from the fierce Santa Ana winds, whose gusts of up to 70 mph moved the fires along.

In the congested suburbs of San Bernardino, a city of 185,000 about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, one flank of a 50,000-acre fire burned through four towns while the other flank destroyed more than 300 homes.

Two men collapsed and died, one as he was evacuating his canyon home and the other as he watched his house burn, the county coroner said.

The 30-mile fire in the San Bernardino area was formed when two smaller fires merged, covering the region with smoke and ash.

Other fires on the outskirts of Los Angeles County merged to create a 47,150-acre blaze that threatened 2,000 homes in four communities and closed four highways, sealing off access to two mountain towns, fire spokeswoman Michele Alcorn said.

Firefighters, including 25 strike teams and 125 engines, were making a stand at Crestline in the San Bernardino National Forest, said U.S. Forest Service fire-information officer Stanton Florea.

Firefighters were spread thinly around threatened communities, focusing on saving homes. Wind prevented the air-tanker drops of retardant and use of backfires that are key tactics of fire containment.

The area is vulnerable because drought and an infestation of bark beetles have left millions of dead trees.

“If the fire starts to crown, racing from one tree to the next, it will be an extreme situation,” Mr. Florea said.

Gov. Gray Davis, Democrat, who visited the San Bernardino fire on Friday, planned a second trip yesterday to announce that he was extending the state of emergency to Los Angeles and San Diego counties, said his spokesman, Steve Maviglio.

Mr. Davis gave an emergency briefing to Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican.

All flights at Los Angeles International Airport and San Diego’s Lindbergh Field were halted after a fire on the Marine Corps’ Miramar Air Station in San Diego forced controllers to evacuate the FAA’s Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control. The facilities functions were moved to other FAA centers, but heavy smoke continued to delay flights because of visibility problems, Agence-France Presse reported.

Some of the evacuations ordered include Indian reservation casinos, California State University San Bernardino, where fire burned two temporary classrooms and a temporary fitness center, and Patton State Hospital, home to 1,300 mental patients.

About 1,100 prison inmates also were evacuated, and at least 200 juvenile wards were evacuated yesterday from two probation camps in La Verne, said Ken Kondo, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

Roughly 1,000 people packed the San Bernardino International Airport center. Fifty of those evacuating were elderly people in wheelchairs taken from a convalescent home.

Three looters were arrested in San Bernardino, police said.

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