World and Nation

Fires in Southern California Leave Two People Dead

Fierce wildfires erupted in Southern California on Monday, leaving two people dead and heralding the start of the most intense period of the fire season here.

The most severe fires, fanned by stiff, dry Santa Ana winds typical of the fall, were burning several thousand acres at the rim of the San Fernando Valley. A homeless man and his dog died when fire engulfed the wood-and-cardboard shack where they lived along a freeway embankment, and another person died in a collision on a freeway on-ramp attributed at least in part to thick smoke shrouding the area.

With strong winds expected into Tuesday, an army of firefighters mounted an all-out air and land assault as the flames and smoke chased residents from their homes, threatened neighborhoods, closed schools and parts of two major freeways, and led Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

“It was really quick,” said Eddie Chicasi, 23, who evacuated to a shelter in the Chatsworth neighborhood as flames threatened his home near Porter Ranch. “As we were coming down our little road, bushes and trees on the side were catching on fire.”

Smaller fires also broke out in San Diego and Orange counties, while in Northern California firefighters were bringing under control a stubborn blaze on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, home to a historic immigration station and other buildings. Only an abandoned water tank was destroyed there.

The cause of most of the blazes was not known, though at least one of the major fires here was deemed of suspicious origin.

The outbreak of fires came a week shy of the one-year anniversary of a series of blazes in Southern California that destroyed more than 2,200 homes, killed 10 people, burned more than half a million acres from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara County and resulted in the largest evacuation in state history.

Every fall, until the first rains in November or December, firefighters and homeowners brace for trouble from the Santa Anas, which blow hot, dry wind from the east that can turn minor fires into raging storms of flame.

“We always think of fires moving as a wave, but fires move under the Santa Ana winds by leap frog,” said Scott Stephens, the co-director of the Center for Fire Research & Outreach at the University of California, Berkeley. “There are hundreds of waves, and as the embers hop in front, the fire could be starting a mile or two behind. That’s why it can jump an eight-lane highway.”

Such was the case Monday, when flames leaped two different major freeways.

Firefighters had made progress Sunday in beating down a fire in the northeast San Fernando Valley that began near Marek canyon until the strong winds came Monday.

It was in this fire that the homeless man, whose identity was not known, died. The fire scorched more than 5,000 acres, burned several mobile homes and led to the evacuation of 1,200 people near the Lake View Terrace district.