CBSN

The Glow Of Danger

Los Angeles County firefighters battle flames from a wall; the brush fires threaten an area of new homes in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Saturday , Oct 25, 2003. Flames pushed by hot Santa Ana winds jumped ridges and roads in the area forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents.
AP
A nearly 14,000-acre wildfire in the San Bernardino National Forest jumped down a hillside into an area of $1 million homes Saturday, burning two homes and forcing hundreds of people to flee.

Smoke and dust kicked up by winds cut visibility to about a dozen yards and flames 30 feet high cast an eerie, orange-red tinge over the area. Interstate 210 remained closed and Interstate 15, the main road from Southern California to Las Vegas, was shut down intermittently.

The 13,730-acre fire 30 miles east of Los Angeles was the largest of a half-dozen burning throughout Southern California.

A new wildfire roaring through the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains burned as many as 20 homes and forced thousands to flee Saturday as it hopscotched through dense housing tracts.

The fire, which erupted around 9 a.m. about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, was fed by fierce Santa Ana winds and in a matter of hours had devoured 3,000 acres of chaparral. The cause of the blaze was unknown.

At least three homes were destroyed and seven other buildings damaged, authorities said. City fire Battalion Chief Jess Campos said there were reports of 15 to 20 homes burned, mostly in Quail Canyon in forest land on the northeast side of the city, but that could not immediately be confirmed.

"The fire's moving too fast," he said. "We cannot get a count of all of it right now."

San Bernardino County officials requested state fire aid to get more firefighters, Campos said. The county also asked the governor to declare a state of emergency.

The fire also burned onto the campus of California State University, San Bernardino, where a parking lot was reported to be on fire.

Winds caused the fire to hopscotch.

"It's jumping a block to a block-and-a-half," Campos said.

The fire threatened more than 1,000 homes, and thousands of people in San Bernardino and the community of Crestline had been ordered evacuated to the local airport.

Much of the region was under a "red flag" alert because of hot, dry weather and blustery Santa Ana winds that forecasters predicted could reach up to 60 mph at times in canyons.

CBS News Correspondent Voince Gonzales says Southern California residents are used to Mother Nature having her way, but that reality doesn't soften the blow.

Rancho Cucamonga Resident Alan Hahn told Gonzales

Since it began Tuesday, the fire in the foothills of San Bernardino County has damaged or destroyed seven homes, said Bill Peters, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry. About 1,700 people had been evacuated, according to county sheriff's spokeswoman Sandy Fatland.

"There have been some home-to-home battles" to keep the wildfire from destroying more buildings, Peters said.

About 2,000 firefighters and eight bulldozers were carving and burning firelines because water-dropping aircraft were unable to attack.

"With this smoke, we don't dare put them up," Peters said. "There are high power lines. I think we're going to have to duke this out hand to hand."

The arson fire was violent and unpredictable because its own fierce winds were combining with rising Santa Ana gusts, at one point causing a small tornado.

Firefighters who protected the eastern side of Rancho Cucamonga shifted to the north Saturday as the flames advanced along a new front, feeding on head-high scrub oak and chaparral abutting wealthy subdivisions.

Elia Benstead, 40, said she awoke to a wall of flames near her house in Haven View Estates.

"It looked like Armageddon," she said. Her family left but returned two hours later to find their home still standing.

The new fire, which began about 9:15 a.m., threatened "a tremendous residential area" in northern parts of the city of San Bernardino, said Carol Beckley of the San Bernardino National Forest. The blaze closed Highway 18 and California State University, San Bernardino, and added to the pall of smoke from the nearby fire in the Rancho Cucamonga area.

"The air quality is horrific. Here in San Bernardino it looks like it's 10 o'clock at night. The ash is just raining down," Beckley said.

The police department urged people to stay away from the city. San Bernardino International Airport was being used as an evacuation center for residents.

The area has been considered an extreme fire danger because a beetle infestation has killed more than 400,000 acres of trees.

Other wildfires threatened to balloon as winds and heat rose.

About 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, a fire near Santa Clarita swelled to 3,000 acres. Authorities closed Highway 126, but no homes were immediately threatened.

Authorities feared that blaze might connect to a fire near Piru in Ventura County, which had charred about 1,250 acres by early Saturday but was burning away from homes. The blaze in steep, rugged terrain was burning into the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and could threaten the endangered California condor if it continues, said Barry Peckham of Los Padres National Forest.

At the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, 50 miles north of San Diego, firefighters battled a 4,700-acre blaze that threatened about 300 homes in nearby De Luz.

About 300 businesses and outbuildings also were in the path of the fire, which was 55 percent contained. Authorities tried to keep people out of the area by canceling a wedding and a gourd festival, fire spokesman John Langford said.

Four firefighters were injured and more than 1,300 were on the line fighting the blaze.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation, although authorities said one possibility being examined was that the fire was linked to ammunition used in the base's training exercises.