High Winds Stoke Calif. Wildfires

By: cbsnews.com
By: cbsnews.com

Flames whirled dangerously close to homes Tuesday as gusty Santa Ana winds sent the biggest of southern California's wildfires flaring in hilly brushlands on Los Angeles' northern edge.

Firefighters with hoses guarded houses as helicopters unleashed loads of water on hot spots of the 9,872-acre blaze charring slopes above the San Fernando Valley communities of Porter Ranch and Granada Hills.

The fire is one of three major blazes that have burned more than 27 square miles of Southern California, destroyed dozens of homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes this week. One man died in the flames, and a motorist was killed in a crash as a fire neared a freeway.

Dazed residents like Michael Rausch returned to a nightmare - as homes were replaced by charred ruins, reports CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker.

"I feel like I'm still in shock," said Rausch. "I know I'm probably going to have a meltdown. I'm in disbelief."

Despite the fire's activity, there were no reports of new structural losses in the Porter Ranch area. Nineteen buildings including some homes were destroyed there on Monday.

Ten miles away, there was major progress against Los Angeles' other big wildfire. The 4,800-acre Marek fire in the northeastern San Fernando Valley was 70 percent contained and some evacuees were allowed to go home.

But people who lived in an area where 38 mobile homes were destroyed were not permitted to return.

Teresa Escamilla, 47, lay on a cot in a Red Cross shelter, thinking the worst. She believed she lost everything including a shoebox containing five years of savings.

"It feels like it's not real," the nursing assistant said in Spanish. "It's a nightmare."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa acknowledged the uncertainty facing residents of the fire areas.

"Many still don't know when they are going to return home," he told a news conference. "Our hearts and prayers are out with all of them."

Around 3,100 firefighters are battling the wildfires. From July to last week, the cash-strapped state had spent more than $274 million fighting fires - and that was before this weeks flare-ups.

On the north coast of San Diego County, a 3,000-acre fire at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton was 25 percent contained. Evacuation orders were largely lifted for about 2,000 Marine Corps personnel and family members in military housing and residents of about 1,500 homes in neighboring Oceanside. A separate small fire closed Interstate 5 through the base for two hours Tuesday before it was controlled.

The outbreak of fires followed the weekend arrival of the first significant Santa Ana winds of the fall.

The National Weather Service said the intensity of the winds was diminishing but warned there would still be strong gusts. Warnings for critical fire weather conditions were to remain in effect until Wednesday night.

The Santa Anas usually sweep in between October and February as cold, dry air descending over the Great Basin flows toward Southern California and squeezes through mountain passes and canyons. The extremely low humidity levels, which make vegetation easier to burn, and high windspeeds combine to whip fires into infernos.

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