Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

California's Fast-Moving Inferno Tests Firefighters, Homeowners

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

California's Fast-Moving Inferno Tests Firefighters, Homeowners

Article excerpt

THE curtain of flames that spread across five southern California counties this week underlines as no incident in state history the susceptibility of the Golden State's desert landscapes to flash fires fanned by quick moving winds.

The fires also have tested the state's emergency response plans even more than two previous tragedies: The firestorm that whipped through dry-brush infested Oakland in October 1991, destroying 1,000 homes, and a wind-driven inferno that incinerated 560 structures in Santa Barbara the year before that.

Every major firefighting unit across several thousand square miles has been enlisted to fight the blazes. But containment efforts have been largely futile because the blazes ignited in so many different locations from Ventura inland to Yucaipa, and from the Sierra Madre mountains to Laguna Beach. At least four fires were reported by authorities to have been started by arson, while one was attributed to a homeless transient trying to keep warm.

"It is difficult to offer the kind of consolation that will help homeowners," said Gov. Pete Wilson (R), after declaring states of emergency in Riverside, Los Angeles, Ventura, San Diego, and Orange Counties. The announcement paved the way for local, state, and federal relief. "We will give them physical comfort and respond with financial needs as time goes on," Mr. Wilson said.

Following the very dry summer, October is also southern California's most fire-prone month. And with more days of low humidity, heat, and dry winds known as Santa Anas predicted, the fire season has just begun.

Pushed by hairdryer-hot winds that helped flames leap from house to house, up hillsides and across fields, fires in the south were also aided by airborne embers, which ignited matchbox-dry roofs. Even before fires swelled into night-time hours, a black-smoke pall hung over the city. …

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