Wildfires Rage Across Southern California, Killing 1

Sunday, October 21st 2007, 5:56 pm
By: News On 6

MALIBU, Calif. (AP) _ Nearly a dozen wildfires driven by powerful Santa Ana winds spread across Southern California on Sunday, killing one person near San Diego and destroying several homes and a church in celebrity-laden Malibu.

The fire was among at least 10 blazes stretching from north of Los Angeles to San Diego as hot weather and the strong winds, arriving from the desert, marked the traditional height of the wildfire season.

Four firefighters and four other people were injured and taken to hospitals in connection with the San Diego fire, said Roxanne Provaznik, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry.

The blaze burned about 2,500 acres near a highway, and a second charred about 3,000 acres in northern San Diego County and was threatening homes near Witch Creek, Provaznik said.

Meanwhile, in Malibu, about 700 firefighters worked to protect about 200 homes in several upscale communities nestled in the hills, officials said. About 1,500 people fled the fires, officials said.

The blaze, which started in Malibu Canyon, had charred at least 1,200 acres and destroyed a church and several homes, one of them a landmark castle. No residents or firefighters were injured, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said.

The winds carried embers across the Pacific Coast Highway, closing the popular road and setting fire to cars and trees in the parking lot of a shopping center where a supermarket, drug store and other shops were damaged.

TV footage showed several buildings in flames in the area, including clusters of beach-side homes.

``This fire is zero percent contained, which means we're at the mercy of the wind,'' acting Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich said.

In all, five homes and two commercial buildings had been confirmed lost throughout the Malibu area, Freeman said. Nine more homes were damaged, he said.

The fire is expected to burn for another two to three days, he said. Until the blaze is extinguished, ``there will literally be thousands of homes that will be threatened at one time or another,'' he said.

Fire crews early Sunday found downed power lines, which may have started the fire, Capt. Mike Brown said.

Late Sunday morning, palm trees bent in half and embers were carried through the air as winds gusted to 60 to 65 mph. Thick smoke obscured the sun.

Susan Nuttall sat in her black Mercedes in a cul-de-sac just off the Pacific Coast Highway, saying she had fled her condo just below Pepperdine University.

``We're all scared to death, and we have nowhere to go,'' said Nuttall, 51, still wearing a bathrobe and holding her Chihuahua.

Flames consumed the landmark Castle Kashan, a stately fortress-like home with turrets and arched windows, as about a dozen residents watched from across a street. Chunks of brick fell from the exterior of the burning building overlooking the coast.

Erratic wind gusts hampered efforts to drop water from aircraft and pushed flames toward HRL Laboratories, a research and engineering facility jointly owned by Boeing Co. and General Motors Corp. about a mile north of Pepperdine. One outbuilding caught fire, Boeing spokeswoman Diana Ball said.

Flames engulfed Malibu Presbyterian Church, which had been evacuated, said youth pastor Eric Smith. ``That's the really good news, that everyone's out and safe,'' Smith said.

Faculty and staff at the 830-acre Pepperdine campus had been urged to evacuate in the morning and students were instructed to gather in the school's cafeteria and basketball arena.

But by early afternoon, the campus was ``secure,'' Freeman said. Flames were no longer visible in the hills around the school and power to the campus had been restored, Pepperdine spokesman Jerry Derloshon said.

About 200 homes had been evacuated in the communities of Malibu Colony, Puerco Canyon, Monte Nido and Sweetwater Canyon, Brown said.

Malibu, home to about 13,000 people, including many celebrities, stretches along 27 miles of Pacific coastline. Last January, a wildfire driven by Santa Ana winds destroyed the home of actress Suzanne Somers and three other multimillion-dollar residences.

Sunday's Malibu fire and the fatal fire near San Diego were just two of the blazes keeping firefighters busy Sunday in Southern California.

Firefighters focused on protecting Piru, a town of 1,200 across a small lake from a 1,500-acre blaze in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles. A condor preserve was also potentially threatened.

In northeastern Los Angeles County near Agua Dulce, about 250 firefighters handled a 2,000-acre blaze that destroyed two structures and injured one person. An unknown number of homes and ranches were threatened, and evacuations were ordered. TV footage showed flames moving down a hill toward homes.

In San Bernardino County, east of Los Angeles, three fires were burning, the largest at 300 acres, officials said. One vacant home was destroyed and 500 homeowners were told they should evacuate. Five to 10 homes were threatened by another blaze.