Traffic snakes up a road as residents flee their hillside homes during a fast moving, wind driven brush fire in the Sylmar area of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, Oct. 13, 2008. (AP Photo)
By Shaya Tayefe Mohajer
LOS ANGELES — Two huge wildfires driven by strong Santa Ana winds burned into neighborhoods near Los Angeles on Monday, forcing frantic evacuations on smoke- and traffic-choked highways, destroying homes and causing at least two deaths.
Around sunset, residents were warned to stay on alert during the night and winds more than 60 mph were forecast. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
More than 1,000 firefighters and nine water-dropping aircraft battled the 4,700-acre Marek Fire at the northeast end of the San Fernando Valley, and the 5,000-acre Sesnon Fire at the west end.
Winds blew up to 45 mph with gusts reaching 70 mph at midday. They were forecast to diminish in the evening before roaring over 60 mph after 11 p.m.
Residents downwind were warned to remain alert into the night. "It can go from here to the ocean in a matter of two to three hours," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Authorities confirmed more than three-dozen mobile homes burned at the Marek Fire, and 19 structures -- some of them homes -- were either damaged or destroyed by the Sesnon Fire. Commercial sites burned in both fires.
"It is a blowtorch we can't get in front of," said Los Angeles County fire Inspector Frank Garrido.
Fire officials alerted other communities to the west in the Ventura County city of Simi Valley and south to Malibu, 20 miles away, as an ominous plume streamed over neighborhoods and far out to sea.
Residents were not allowed to drive into one of Porter Ranch's gated communities because officials wanted to keep roads clear for emergency vehicles. Instead they parked their cars, ran to their homes and carried out whatever they could carry in pillow cases, in their arms, sacks and suitcases. Some ran out clutching paintings.
Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman warned people not to stay home after evacuation orders had been given. "You may not be able to even outrun this fire," he said.
A man was killed in four-vehicle crash on the nearby 118 Freeway. California Highway Patrol Officer Leland Tang said traffic had stopped because firefighters were going by as fire neared the route. At some point, motorists stopped on the freeway because of the flames and CHP officers turned them around to use an on-ramp as an exit, said CHP Capt. J.D. Goodwin.
Earlier, a fatality was discovered at the Marek Fire, an area where neighborhoods abut rugged canyonlands below the mountainous Angeles National forest. The man appeared to have been a transient living in a makeshift shelter, officials said.
About 1,200 people evacuated due to the Marek Fire, which was just 5 percent contained.
"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."
Mobile home park resident Glenn Bell said he and another park resident broke a padlock on an emergency exit gate to escape at daybreak. "If we hadn't broke open that gate, there would be people dead up there," he said.
Olive View-UCLA Medical Center moved five of its most fragile patients to other hospitals. Spokeswoman Carla Nino said the four newborns and the fifth patient were on ventilators and were the most difficult to transport. Some other patients were discharged but the hospital decided it was not necessary to evacuate about 180 others.
The dry and warm Santa Ana winds typically blow between October and February. As they whistle through Southern California canyons and valleys, they accelerate, drying out vegetation and hastening the spread of any fires that erupt.
"This is what we feared the most," Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mark Savage said. "The winds that were expected -- they have arrived."
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.
"That was quite a jump. That's an eight-lane fire break," said fire spokesman Inspector Paul Hartwell.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District advised Monday that air quality may be unhealthful due to the fires and urged people to avoid outdoor activities.
The Red Cross said about 500 people registered at an evacuation center at San Fernando High School. Agency spokesman Nick Samaniego said some evacuees had seen news footage of their homes burning.
"You can imagine, it's a devastating situation," he said. "A lot of people on pins and needles waiting to hear news about their communities."
Most schools in the area were closed Monday.
In San Diego County, a wildfire that began on an explosives training range at Camp Pendleton had grown to more than 1,500 acres by nightfall and forced the evacuation of 1,400 homes.
San Diego County's reverse 911 telephone system notified some residents of the evacuation orders, while sheriff's deputies went door-to-door to warn residents, said Yvette Urrea Moe, a spokeswoman for San Diego County Office of Emergency Services.
Firefighters also contained smaller blazes elsewhere in southern California.
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In northern California, a blaze charred more than half of Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, but spared historical structures on the island, including an immigration station that was the first stop for millions of immigrants, mostly from China, in the early 1900s. The blaze, which had spread to 380 acres since it started around 8 p.m. Sunday, was 75 percent contained by Monday afternoon, state park officials said.