Deadly L.A. Fires Possibly Caused By Arson


Like troops on the frontline at dawn, firefighters raced to do battle with the fast moving flames, pushing down the foothills under thick cover of smoke. The wildfire is advancing on L.A.’s dense northwest suburbs, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate.

“The whole mountain was on fire, it was pretty scary,” says area resident Steve Dickinson.

By late today, this so-called Marek fire had burned more 3,700 acres, destroyed more than 30 mobile homes and burned an industrial site to the ground. It also took the life of one homeless man, reports CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker.

“This has potential to be a major disaster right now,” says Los Angeles County Fire Chief David Carolan.

Firefighters threw everything in their arsenal at the blaze, hitting it from the ground and the air. But the wildfire had an arsenal too. It was armed with drought dried brush and wicked devil winds, the Santa Anas, gusting up to 75 mph.

“The wind is really king here,” says Deputy Fire Chief Mario Rueda. “It’s dictating what we’re doing.”

With the wind calling the shots, flames can get whipped up in a heartbeat, burn through dried brush, and head for the massive subdivisions in L.A.’s suburbs, Whitaker reports.

A few miles west another blaze broke out this afternoon in the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles, charring 2,000 acres and spreading, forcing thousands more to grab their belongings and flee advancing flames.

Fire officials could not immediately estimate how many homes in Porter Ranch were in the fire’s path. Flames burned furiously at midday just across a road from one development of luxury homes.

About 1,200 people were evacuated due to the Marek Fire, which was just 5 percent contained.

Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, the hospital closest to the Marek Fire, evacuated eight of its most fragile patients to other hospitals. Spokeswoman Carla Nino said those patients – six newborns, a heart bypass patient and another described as “medically fragile were all on ventilators and were the most difficult to transport.

About 180 patients remained at the hospital as officials waited to determine if the fire would actually approach.

The fire began early Sunday as the seasonal Santa Anas blew through Southern California, and about 1,000 firefighters from multiple agencies were deployed. The cause was under investigation.

CBS News correspondent Manuel Gallegus reports that firefighters actually actually thought they were working toward containing this fire, but in the middle of night, strong gusts of wind up to 65 miles an hour and residents barely had time to get out.

“This is what we feared the most,” said Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mark Savage. “The winds that were expected, they have arrived.”

The blaze diminished overnight, but authorities warned it was a sleeping giant. Fierce winds returned before dawn and sent it raging again.

Flames jumped the Foothill Freeway, which was closed in both directions for about a three-mile stretch in northern Los Angeles between the 118 Freeway and Interstate 5 amid the morning rush hour, officials said.

“That was quite a jump, that’s an eight-lane fire break,” said fire spokesman Inspector Paul Hartwell.

Red Cross spokesman Nick Samaniego said about 100 evacuees had gathered at San Fernando High School, where some had seen news footage of their homes burning.

“You can imagine, it’s a devastating situation,” he said. “A lot of people on pins and needles waiting to hear news about their communities.”

Jim Williams, 72, grabbed his medication, comb and toothbrush and was out of his house within five minutes. The longtime resident said the area hadn’t burned since 1974.

“I didn’t expect it again,” Williams said. “The trees there at the time burned and didn’t grow back, only brush. I felt relatively safe that if the brush burned, it would only be a small fire, nothing like this.”

Most schools in the area were closed Monday.

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