Fears for 1,000 homes as strong winds fuel firestorm

POWERFUL Santa Ana winds kicked up before dawn yesterday, driving a ferocious firestorm that had already burned at least 200 homes onto a path toward more neighbourhoods.

The fire, blamed for the stress-related deaths of two residents, was threatening at least 1,000 homes yesterday.

It forced the evacuation of a university campus, Indian casino and state mental hospital, and firefighters couldn’t say when it might be contained.

Governor Gray Davis declared a state of emergency for San Bernardino and Ventura counties late Saturday.

He ordered firefighting agencies to use all available personnel and equipment and called on President Bush to issue a disaster declaration to free up federal loan money for people who lost homes.

The winds died down as the temperature dropped over night but then picked up again early yesterday, sending authorities rushing to evacuate hundreds more homes in the Lake Arrowhead and Crestline resort areas.

Ranger Gabriel Garcia of the San Bernardino National Forest’s fire suppression agency said firefighters he talked to yesterday morning were not optimistic they could save all the homes in the blaze’s path. “First thing they said is they’re getting their butts kicked,” Garcia said. “They’re saving a lot but they can’t save it all.”

The blaze and a larger wildfire in the nearby Rancho Cucamonga area closed highways, cut power to thousands and choked the region with heavy smoke and ash. The Rancho Cucamonga fire had burned at least 16 homes by yesterday, when its western front crossed into Los Angeles County.

It blackened more than 34,000 acres as it marched into the northern edge of the city and was driven into Lytle Creek community. Garcia expected the two wildfires eventually to merge.

About 100 miles to the northwest, in Ventura County, other wildfires were raging early yesterday in the hills above Simi Valley’s Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and near Piru, where 300 homes were threatened for a time. The Simi Valley fire had burned 2,500 acres early yesterday.

Compounding the problem in the dry Southern California mountains has been the damage caused by a bark beetle infestation that has killed hundreds of thousands of acres of trees.

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