California's Fast-Moving Inferno Tests Firefighters, Homeowners

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.

Felled power lines sparked and prevented some rescue and firefighting efforts. Natural-gas explosions and steady leaks helped fuel the infernos. In several communities, water supplies were sucked dry by hosing trucks, leaving firefighters to drain area pools.

Elsewhere, neighbors helped neighbors fight off flames with garden hoses. ``We absolutely made a difference,'' said Ken Steward, a resident of Laguna Beach, one of the hardest hit areas.

Mr. Steward told TV interviewers of heroic efforts by friends in some neighborhoods that helped salvage homes flanked by other homes on fire. In other neighborhoods, exhausted water supplies made dousing flames impossible.

``Just above downtown [Laguna] there was no water at all,'' said Steward. ``It was really frustrating.''

At press time, the fires had consumed at least 80,000 acres of land and estimates of destroyed or damaged homes reached 600. At least 27 firefighters and five residents were hurt battling the blazes.

The tragedy is expected to reignite debate about the adequacy of southern California fire regulations. Dozens of homes in Laguna Beach were said to be constructed before new ordinances demanded fire-retardant materials for roofs and siding.

For now, however, the news is filled with a 1,001 vignettes of struggle and heroism, from concerted efforts by firefighters to keep flames from traversing key highways to local homeowners rescuing pets from fire-rimmed backyards.

The round-the-clock coverage of the disaster has angered some. Brian Stonehill, a media analyst at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., says TV news magnifies the horrific aspects of the fires in a hypnotic fashion that could help spur copycat arsonists.

``Undoubtedly, seeing your fire on TV magnifies the sick thrill of seeing your match burn down a forest or a bush,'' he says.

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