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Brushfires Continue to Erupt; 600 Homes Lost in California

By David Ferrell
and Eric Malnic

Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles

Devastating brushfires continued to scorch hillsides in Laguna Beach, Altadena and other areas of Southern California Thursday. Troublesome new blazes erupted even as firefighters managed to bring the worst of the infernos into partial containment.

Losses climbed to nearly 600 homes damaged or destroyed and more than 115,000 acres burned, authorities said.

Weary firefighters seemed to be winning the battle to save hundreds of threatened homes in some areas, but late-afternoon sea breezes drove flames into residential parts of Ventura County, where other homes burned.

No deaths were reported in any of the 13 major fires that engulfed the region, but the injury total climbed to 59, including firefighters, and property damage was estimated in the billions. President Clinton declared a federal disaster area to help speed reconstruction efforts. Meanwhile, relief agencies continued to organize shelters for an estimated 25,000 people left homeless, and law-enforcement agencies pressed their investigations into fires believed to be set by arsonists.

In major developments:

* More than 1,000 firefighters working overnight managed to contain the fire that roared through the hill-shrouded resort town of Laguna Beach 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles on Wednesday, destroying 300 homes and forcing the evacuation of the city's 24,000 residents. Residents began returning to their homes or smoldering lots, and U.S. Marines began picking through rubble to look for possible fatalities.

* The fire that destroyed 115 homes in Altadena and Sierra Madre 15 miles northeast of Los Angeles, forcing the evacuation of more than 2,000 residents, continued to burn out of control after blackening more than 5,000 acres, but officials said the blaze posed no immediate threat to homes.

* Near Thousand Oaks, 45 miles west of Los Angeles, a 2-day-old fire that had consumed 33,000 acres of brush and destroyed 33 homes began to race eastward through Carlisle Canyon, pushing toward the exclusive community of Lake Sherwood and setting two homes ablaze. Residents of those two communities were being evacuated, along with those in the dense subdivisions of nearby Westlake Village.

* In Riverside County to the east of Los Angeles, two fires that had burned 6,000 acres of brushland were declared fully contained, and a third blaze was brought largely under control.

* Slackening breezes and cooler overnight temperatures helped firefighters to gain an upper hand on some of the most serious fires, but weather forecasters predicted a return of dry, warm, 20- to 40-mph winds Friday, raising fears that flames might be fanned anew.

"If the fires aren't fully contained by Friday night, the embers will begin blowing again," said Weatherdata Inc. forecaster James McCutcheon. Though winds were expected to be less severe than those that fanned flames Wednesday, gusts once again could reach speeds of 60 and 70 mph below some canyons, McCutcheon said.

In the Laguna Beach fire, where City Manager Kenneth Frank was among those who lost his home, firefighters had reached a turning point in battling the fire at about midnight Wednesday, thanks largely to a cool marine layer that brought moisture and decreasing winds to the picturesque seaside enclave, said an Orange County Fire Department spokesman.

Laguna Beach police placed the damage toll at 330 homes lost or partially destroyed. About 1,400 firefighters were still working the fire and another 1,000 were en route to the scene, authorities said.

Throughout the night, Laguna residents bedded down in emergency shelters or flouted evacuation orders to stay home and douse their roofs with garden hoses. One man, Julian Wilson, left Laguna on Wednesday morning to try to save his ranch near Temecula 40 miles north of San Diego, where a brushfire near Highway 79 destroyed more than 100 acres.

That property was spared, but Wilson returned home late Wednesday night to find that his Laguna home was destroyed.

The fire caused overnight power outages and sporadic explosions as the flames reached fuel storage tanks scattered on the hillsides.

In the Altadena-Sierra Madre area, where 115 homes were destroyed, the fire continued to move slowly up the steep mountainsides, pushing deeper into the Angeles National Forest.

Capt. Steve Valenzuela of the Los Angeles County Fire Department said the approximately 1,000 firefighters manning the lines there had managed to contain about 20 percent of the blaze, but there was no estimate when more complete containment would be achieved. No additional homes were threatened.

Andres Z. Huang, 35, the transient Chinese immigrant accused of accidentally starting the Altadena blaze early Wednesday morning, told detectives he had built a campfire in the brush-covered hills because he was chilly, according to Deputy Gabe Ramirez of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

"Then he got scared and fled when the flames began to spread," Ramirez said.