San Francisco Chronicle, San Diego — The death toll rose to 15 people Monday as out-of-control fires raged from Ventura County to the Mexican border, ravaging hundreds of thousands of acres and forcing people to run for their lives in what officials called the most expensive inferno in state history.
More than 8,000 firefighters battled walls of flame fanned by Santa Ana winds. The 10 fires burning in Southern California collectively are the most devastating in California since the 1991 Oakland hills blaze.
Daily life was disrupted as streets and freeways were periodically shut down, schools were closed, air traffic was slowed and tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes.
John Douma, a 44-year-old Navy scientist, stared up a bit bewildered at the orange sky in the Tierrasanta section of San Diego. It was like a science-fiction movie, he said.
“It's raining ash,'' he said. “It's almost like a war — pretty frightening.''
President Bush declared Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties disaster areas, making residents whose homes have burned eligible for low-interest loans if insurance fails to cover the cost of rebuilding.
Altogether, the fires that started burning late last week had scorched 430,000 acres by Monday night, destroyed 1,164 structures and were threatening 35,000 homes.
Two fires in particular — the Old Fire in San Bernardino County and the Simi Valley Fire in Ventura County — were expected to grow. Tom Foley, a California Department of Forestry battalion chief, said late Monday that the Simi Valley Fire was threatening to spread to the edges of the heavily populated San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. The blaze already had burned into the communities of Chatsworth and Porter Ranch.
Foley said in a “worst-case scenario,'' the fire could jump Highway 101 and burn westward into Malibu.
The fires already amount to a record-breaking disaster.
“This will be the most expensive fire in California history, both in loss of property and the cost of fighting it,'' said Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services. Jones said it was far too early to name a dollar amount, but experts said it could be in the billions.
Eleven people died in San Diego County while trying to escape the flames from the Cedar Fire, which authorities said started Saturday when a lost hunter set off a signal fire near Julian. Two more died in the Paradise Fire in the northern part of the county, the CDF said. An additional two people were killed over the weekend in a fire in San Bernardino County.
On Monday, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kollender said residents needed to move faster when law enforcement agencies tell them to get out.
“The majority of these deaths are caused by people trying to escape this fire and not following directions they are given,'' he said during a news conference. “When you are asked to leave, do it immediately. Do not wait.''
But one of those chased from his home by the Paradise Fire, Derrick Patstone, said residents had little warning and no evacuation call when the flames bore down on their neighborhood at 2 a.m. Sunday. Patstone said one man woke neighbors by banging on doors and honking his car horn.
Nancy Morphew, 51, didn't make it out. The Valley Center resident stopped to save her nine horses, said her son, Ben. She got the horses to safety but became disoriented by the smoke, drove her pickup into a gully and died in the fire.
“She had her priorities, and she wanted to take care of them,'' Ben Morphew said.
Unlike the Valley Center residents, Mary Oppenheimer, who lives in the Escondido area, got official notice to get out of her home. Authorities ordered her family to evacuate at 11:30 a.m. on Monday. She had only a few minutes to pack.
“I didn't know I'd be this emotional about it,'' she said. “When I got to (the evacuation center at a local church), I started to cry. It hit me that this could be the last time I see my house.''
By late afternoon, Oppenheimer had no idea whether her home in Rancho San Pasqual still stood.
Rita Hernandez, a 26-year-old mother of two, lost it all — her modest Valley Center home and all her family's belongings. On Sunday morning, sheriff's deputies gave her and her husband 10 minutes to leave. Hernandez grabbed her infant and 6-year-old, their Halloween costumes and a photo album. The four got out in a hurry. When they returned, their house was in ashes.
“I just wish I could have gotten the baby books,'' she said in a shocked haze. “And I wished we had gotten some shoes and some extra clothes. Physically, we're all right. Emotionally, it's very hard.''
Nearly 200,000 acres burned
Nearly 200,000 acres were scorched and 457 structures destroyed in the San Diego fires. The Cedar Fire, the largest of the three major blazes burning in the county, scorched its way from Ramona to Scripps Ranch — roughly 25 miles. Gov. Gray Davis said officials in Arizona and Nevada were sending 50 fire engines apiece to San Diego, where 1,000 firefighters were already fighting the flames.
There was some cause for optimism. The “devil winds'' that whipped up flames in San Diego County on Sunday died down considerably, giving hope that firefighters might be able to get a handle on the wildfires.
Lora Lowes, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry, said firefighters hope to have San Diego's Otay blaze totally contained by Thursday.
In the meantime, officials warned residents who were not in immediate danger to stay in their houses, safe from the cloud of smoke that hovered over the county.
Jeff Lear, a 40-year-old salesman who worked at home, raced home Sunday with his wife after realizing that one of the fires was close to his Tierrasanta neighborhood. They were celebrating their anniversary at a nearby resort. Lear was hosing down the back deck of his 3,500-square-foot home when he saw 40- to 60-foot flames coming his way.
'It was unbelievable'
“It was unbelievable,'' he said. “It was coming up the hill. It was a twisting tornado of fire.''
Lear spent much of Monday trying to get close to his house to see if it were still standing. By late afternoon, with his heart in his mouth, authorities let him return. When he got there his house was still standing.
“It's so good to see it,'' he said. “I feel so blessed.''
In San Bernardino County, authorities ordered as many as 12,000 people evacuated from North San Bernardino, Lake Arrowhead, Crestline, Running Springs, Devore, Arrowbear and Green Valley Lake.
Brisk winds and temperatures in the 90s frustrated firefighters battling two San Bernardino blazes — the Old Fire and the Grand Prix — said Chaeli Judd, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. The two fires, which have burned through 82,474 acres and destroyed 527 homes, merged Sunday near the Cajon Pass.
The Old Fire was only 5 percent contained expected to grow, said Los Angeles Fire Captain Greg Cleveland, whose department is helping battle the blaze. Firefighters were having difficulty with the Old Fire because of high winds, rugged terrain, and brittle and dry trees. But officials hoped to have the Grand Prix fire fully under control by 6 p.m. Thursday.
The Verdale Fire in Los Angeles County, which devastated 8,680 acres, was 85 percent contained Monday afternoon, according to officials. But firefighters geared up to fight the Simi Valley fire in neighboring Ventura County, which was moving over the Los Angeles County line.
Gasping for breath
Residents there, as in so many other hot spots in Southern California, had almost no time to get out.
Wendy Goff, 30, gasped for breath as she ran up and down the stairs carrying each of her four cats to her car as she ran from the flames.
“I just grabbed some papers, some memorabilia, some clothes,” she gasped, as a pall of smoke rose over the ridge of Woolsey Canyon just a few hundred yards to the northeast. “We weren't expecting this, but when I saw the smoke this morning, I knew. We're just hoping for the best.”
Frank Kratochvil, 73, a retiree, pushed his musical instruments into his SUV and nervously prepared to go after getting his evacuation order shortly after noon.
“I don't want to talk about it,” he said. “It'll be OK. I just took what I could, old photos, my checkbook. I left the computer. I can't carry it now.”