- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

LOS ANGELES | A wind-blasted wildfire tore through the city’s northern foothills Saturday, burning hundreds of mobile homes, forcing a hospital to evacuate some patients and sending thousands of residents fleeing for safety.

The fire broke out late Friday in the foothills community of Sylmar on the edge of the Angeles National Forest and quickly spread across 6,500 acres - more than 10 square miles - as it was driven by Santa Ana wind gusting as high as 76 mph.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Saturday that the fire destroyed about 500 mobile homes in the hillsides above the San Fernando Valley, but no one was injured there. Aerial footage from television helicopters showed rows of houses gutted in just one subdivision.

Fire crews had to abandon the mobile home park, where the fire burned out of control.

“We have almost total devastation here in the mobile park,” Los Angeles Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said of the Oakridge Mobile Home Park. “I can’t even read the street names because the street signs are melting.”

He produced a burned U.S. flag on a broken stick as a sign of hope and bravery for firefighters. “The home that this flag was flying from is gone,” he said.

At an evacuation center, Oakridge resident Wendy Vannenberg said the park had about 600 residences, many of them housing senior citizens. Fire officials said there were no reports of injuries. Evacuee Lucretia Romero said firefighters came by her home and gave her 10 minutes to evacuate.

Mrs. Romero, 65, said she had seen smoke above the hills beyond the front door and then, within an hour, saw that a canyon across from her home was red with flame as helicopters dropped water.

“They would drop water, the water would squash the flames and then two minutes later the flames would come back.”

She clutched the purse and jacket she snatched when firefighters shouted at her to flee. Her daughter, Alisa, 42, wore a blood-stained shirt and pants; she was scratched and suffered a black eye when a helicopter dropped water on their home and collapsed the entryway ceiling. They were optimistic that their home of 30 years survived but said their cat, Doris, was missing.

Fire officials estimated 10,000 people lived in the area put under mandatory evacuation in the Sylmar, Knollwood and Porter Ranch communities. About 80 miles to the northwest, an 1,800-acre blaze in the Santa Barbara community of Montecito had forced the evacuation of more than 5,400 homes and destroyed more than 110.

Another fire broke out in Orange and Riverside counties southeast of Los Angeles, destroying at least 18 buildings, many of them expensive homes.

The Los Angeles fire jumped two freeways, leading police to shut them down and forcing evacuees to take surface streets.

“Near hurricane winds made it very difficult for firefighters,” Los Angeles Deputy Fire Chief Mario Rueda said.

The Los Angeles blaze threatened at least 1,000 buildings, fire spokeswoman Melissa Kelley said.

Mayor Villaraigosa said the fire brought down some power lines and could cause rolling blackouts. He urged residents throughout the city to conserve power.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an emergency declaration for the Los Angeles County fire, dedicating state personnel and equipment to the firefighting and evacuation efforts. He had earlier declared an emergency for the wildfire in Santa Barbara County.

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