- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2008

LOS ANGELES | Two wildfires driven by strong Santa Ana winds threatened neighborhoods near Los Angeles on Monday, killing a man, destroying several dozen mobile homes and forcing frantic evacuations.

A second person died in a head-on crash on a freeway entrance ramp in traffic snarled by smoke and flames.

Firefighters were struggling with a 5,000-acre blaze in the San Fernando Valley’s northeastern corner when a new blaze erupted at midmorning a few miles to the west in mountains above the Porter Ranch area and quickly grew to 2,000 acres as wind blew up to 45 mph, with gusts reaching 70 mph.

“It is a blowtorch we can’t get in front of,” said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Frank Garrido.

Fire officials could not immediately estimate how many homes in Porter Ranch were in the fire’s path. Flames burned furiously at midday just across a road from one development of luxury homes. Fire officials alerted other communities as far south as Malibu, 20 miles away.

The first fire was burning where neighborhoods abut rugged canyonlands below the mountainous Angeles National Forest. The fatality there was an apparent transient living in a makeshift shelter, officials said.

About 1,200 people were evacuated because of the Marek Fire, which was just 5 percent contained. Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Mark Savage said 37 or 38 mobile homes were destroyed by that blaze early Monday.

“We could have had an army there and it would not have stopped it,” Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Mario Rueda said. “Wind is king here, it’s dictating everything we are doing.”

Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, the hospital closest to the Marek Fire, evacuated eight of its most fragile patients to other hospitals. Spokeswoman Carla Nino said those patients - six newborns, a heart bypass patient and another described as “medically fragile - were all on ventilators and were the most difficult to transport.

About 180 patients remained at the hospital as officials waited to determine if the fire would actually approach.

The dry and warm Santa Ana winds typically blow into Southern California between October and February. As they whistle through canyons and valleys, they pick up speed, drying out vegetation and hastening the spread of any fires that break out.

The Marek Fire began early Sunday during the first significant Santa Ana of the season, and about 1,000 firefighters from multiple agencies were deployed. The cause was under investigation.

“This is what we feared the most,” said Capt. Savage. “The winds that were expected, they have arrived.”

The blaze diminished overnight, but authorities warned it was a sleeping giant. Fierce winds returned before dawn and sent it raging again.

Flames jumped the Foothill Freeway, which was closed in both directions for about a three-mile stretch in northern Los Angeles between the 118 Freeway and Interstate 5 amid the morning rush hour, officials said.

A motorist was killed on a freeway ramp after vehicles started turning around and exiting to avoid the fire, Inspector Garrido said.

The Red Cross said about 500 people registered at an evacuation center at San Fernando High School.

c AP writer Thomas Watkins contributed to this report.

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