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Calif. Fires Rage Despite Calmer Winds

Calmer wind Sunday aided firefighters battling wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes in Southern California, forced thousands of residents to flee and blanketed much of the region with choking smoke.

Firefighters got some welcome help from an unpredictable adversary, reports CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker. Those bedeviling Santa Ana winds died down, allowing fire crews to make progress toward containing the fires. But Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger warned there likely will be no rest for the weary firefighters.

"This isn't any more a fire season in the fall," Schwarzenegger said. "This is a fire season all year round. I think it's because of climate change or weather change. We have to be ready for it."

The fires have blackened more than 34 square miles since Thursday in parts of Los Angeles County, Riverside and Orange counties to the east, and Santa Barbara County to the northwest. More than 800 homes and apartments had been destroyed.

No deaths were reported, but police brought trained dogs Sunday morning to search the rubble of a mobile home park where some 500 homes were destroyed. They were focusing on mobile homes where cars were still parked in front.

Even areas far away from the flames were affected as poor air quality forced many people to stay indoors. Organizers canceled a marathon in Pasadena in which 8,000 runners had planned to participate.

Sunday's easing of the fierce dry Santa Ana wind allowed firefighters to set backfires in efforts to block the main fires from advancing into hillside neighborhoods.

But the numbers are daunting:

In Sylmar in Los Angeles County, the Sayre Fire, which has burned 9,480 acres so far, is only 30% contained. 630 structures were destroyed or damaged, and an additional 7,500 structures are threatened. Ten thousand people have been evacuated.

There were five injuries, including three firefighters, and five arrests for looting.

Helicopter images from CBS Station KCAL showed masses of smoke, but they were rising straight up, suggesting that winds in the area had died down a bit.

In Orange and Riverside Counties, the Triangle Complex Fire, which broke out along Riverside Freeway (91), has destroyed at least 104 residences in Anaheim, Yorba Linda, Brea and Corona, according to the Orange County Fire Authority. Between 20,000-23,000 people were evacuated. Six firefighters suffered minor injuries.

The fire has burned approximately 10,475 acres and is about 5 percent contained, according to fire officials.


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In Santa Barbara County, the Tea Fire in Montecito (which is currently 75% contained) has burned 1,940 acres and destroyed 210 residences and damaged nine others. There were 22 injuries from smoke inhalation and three burn injuries.

On Saturday the mandatory evacuation orders for some areas were revised, and residents were allowed to return in unburned areas.

The cause of the Tea Fire is under investigation. Those with information about the fire are being asked to call the Sheriff's anonymous tip hotline (805) 681-4171.

"I think this has been a very tough few days for the people of Southern California," Schwarzenegger said at a morning press briefing. "I just wanted to say to our fire crews and everyone involved in the fires, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,' for the extraordinary work they've been doing here."

Schwarzenegger also commended the cooperation between state and federal agencies, and between law enforcement and fire officials.

"When you deal with evacuations, with 10,000 people evacuated, you're talking about a lot of effort that goes into it, a lot of law enforcement people to keep the homes safe, people safe and find the shelters. They have done an extraordinary job," he said.

Schwarzenegger said that one of the lessons being learned by the weekend's spate of fires is how to deal with mobile homes, given the 500 residences that were destroyed at Oakridge Mobile Home Park.

"We should think about building the mobile homes with the same fire retardant materials we use in homes," he said. "When you talk to fire officials and chiefs, they tell you that fire ran through the mobile home park so quickly that there was no way of stopping anything there because they were like matches, and they caught fire one after the other."

"Through this emergency declaration, we want to let people know the state is with you, we're going to help to get your homes back and structures back, your lives back, and the federal government will work with you."

Growing Triangle Complex Fire Threatens San Bernardino County

The most threatening blaze had charred more than 16 square miles of Orange and Riverside counties since erupting Saturday and shooting through subdivisions entwined with wilderness parklands.

Early Sunday, the wind pushed flames dangerously close to a church and adjacent mobile home park in the Olinda Village area north of Yorba Linda, but firefighters were able to beat it back and only one mobile home was lost.

Billy Bagsby, a prison inmate firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the flames suddenly shifted direction around 2 a.m.

"It was like the church was protecting itself," Bagsby said.

That fire had destroyed 119 homes in the communities of Corona, Yorba Linda and the Anaheim Hills area of Anaheim. In addition, 50 units of an apartment complex burned, Orange County fire spokeswoman Angela Garbiso said. Flames also destroyed the main building of a high school in the Orange County city of Brea.

At one point a firefighter battling the apartment blaze ran down a street with two Pomeranian dogs - one white and one brown - under his arms and placed them in a TV news truck, then dashed back to the fire. The firefighter, who would not give his name, said he rescued the dogs from a burning apartment.

Apartment resident Melody Ma, 24, said she took her sister to piano lessons Saturday morning, when the fire's smoke appeared to be far away, then found she could not return home.

"There's things you can't replace like photos and stuff," said Ma, bursting into tears in a shelter.

Evacuees could only watch the wildfires from a distance and wait to learn the fate of their homes and possessions.

"I'm hoping my house will not burn down, but if it burns down that's my life, right? I've got to start from scratch again," said Jack Chen, 56, of Yorba Linda as he sat on a cot in a school gym.

Evacuee Gail Slagel, 61, said she spent Saturday watching flames in the area around her house from the safety of a Yorba Linda strip mall.

"I just kept sitting there saying, 'Please, please, please, give me a home to come home to, don't let it be gone," she said as she sat outside a restaurant with her ash-covered poodle.

Capt. Leonard Grill, a 20-year veteran of the Riverside County Fire Department, watched for flaring embers in a Yorba Linda neighborhood late Saturday.

"It's gotten worse and worse every year. I can't keep track of them any more," Grill said of recent destructive wildfires. "These used to be the out-of-the-ordinary fires, once-in-a-career kind of fires. Now they're every year."

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

(A wildfire burns to the edge of a Yorba Linda, Calif., neighborhood Saturday, Nov. 15, 2008.)

Six firefighters from various agencies were injured in the blaze.

The Devastation At Sylmar

About 50 miles to the northwest, a fire in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley had spread across nearly 15 square miles and had destroyed more than 500 homes and 11 commercial buildings.

This morning Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spoke of the ruins at the Oakridge Mobile Home Park: "I can tell you that after reviewing that site, all you see is charred wood, metal, bricks. What you see is a devastation that I've never seen before. And our hearts are out to all of those people who have lost their homes.

"Remember, many of these people were elderly. Some were disabled. A lot of them were on fixed incomes. They don't have a home anymore."

He promised the L.A. Housing Authority would work with the displaced.

"We're going to rebuild," he said. "Make no mistake."

Among those who lost homes in the Sylmar fire was Linda Pogacnik, who said that after decades of driving a school bus full of noisy kids, she finally bought her dream house at "the Beverly Hills of mobile home parks."

"It had this beautiful oval bathtub, and just a few nights ago I lit candles and put on soft music and got in," she said. "The moon was full, and it made it look like the eucalyptus tree outside had little white lights."

She left with only her dogs, some clothes and a few essentials. Left behind were photography books and scrapbooking materials that she said were "going to be all I did for the rest of my life."

By midmorning Sunday, firefighters reported the Sylmar fire 35 percent contained.

Containment Of Tea Fire Continues

About 90 miles northwest of Sylmar, a 3-square-mile fire in the upscale Santa Barbara County community of Montecito was 75 contained Sunday morning.

County spokesman William Boyer said 106 homes were destroyed in the city of Santa Barbara and 77 burned in adjacent Montecito. He said the final total could reach 200, many of them multimillion-dollar homes with ocean views.

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