Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles County, and officials warned residents in the affected areas that the electric power supply was threatened. The expanding fires also closed major roads, including parts of Interstate 5, the state's primary north-south artery, and the 91 and 57 Freeways.
Firefighters tried to contain the destructive Tea Fire that broke out Thursday night in Montecito, an enclave about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles, when another fire erupted overnight Friday in the Sylmar area of the San Fernando Valley, north of downtown Los Angeles. That fire destroyed at least 500 units at a mobile home park and 65 other houses. It also damaged 100 houses. It had burned more than 6,500 acres. By Saturday night, the more than 1,000 firefighters working on the Sylmar fire had it only 10 percent contained.
Yet another fire began Saturday afternoon, in Corona, about 50 miles inland from Los Angeles.
The Corona blaze, named the Freeway Complex Fire, had burned more than 1,000 acres and damaged at least 19 homes. Hundreds of residents fled the fire, which was being fought by more than 200 firefighters. Several helicopters and airplanes dropped water and flame retardant.
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At least 18 people, including firefighters, have been injured in the fires. Santa Barbara officials reported one fatality, a 98-year-old man who died after he evacuated Friday.
Schwarzenegger said low humidity and high winds forecast earlier this week had helped firefighters anticipate the seasonal blazes and position resources throughout the region. But by Saturday evening resources were stretched thin as blazes sprouted from the tall dry brush throughout Southern California.
In addition to the three major fires, firefighters also dispatched ground crews and air craft to a 10-acre fire in Palos Verdes and a smaller fire in the Brea area, both in Los Angeles County. There was also a small blaze near Escondido in San Diego and another fire across the border in Mexico, according to state authorities.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the Sylmar wildfire appeared to be the most serious in years.
“We know we have lost dozens of structures,” he said. “It is certainly more than we have lost over the last decade.”
“These winds are treacherous,” Villaraigosa added. “People really need to understand that because of these winds this fire can be upon you in a moments notice.”
Emergency crews got a demonstration of how dangerous the winds were when in the middle of the night, a wall of flames surrounded the Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar, and hospital staff members worked frantically to remove critically ill patients as smoke seeped into the ventilation systems and backup generators failed.
Capt. Steve Ruda of the Los Angeles Fire Department said the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar was almost totally devastated. He said street signs in the park had been melted by flames.
“It was a firestorm. There were 50 foot length flames streaking across the mobile home park,” he said. He added, “Fire hoses were melting into the cement and concrete. That's how hot it was.”