Long night of worry for California evacuees - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Long night of worry for California evacuees

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Posted: Monday, October 22, 2007 1:58 pm | Updated: 7:19 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

LATEST UPDATE: Cleveland National Forest announces closure as flames spread outward from Modjeska and Silverado canyons.

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More California fire coverage from the Orange County Register

The evacuees at El Modena High School in Orange hoped their houses weren't among those shown.

“We're here for the night,” said Billy Rice, who planned to camp out on a donated cot at the evacuation center, run by the American Red Cross. “We could be on the street forever. We have no idea.”

They were not alone in their worry.

Thousands of residents of east Orange County were forced to flee Tuesday to hotels, the houses of friends and family and to evacuation centers like El Modena High School as the Santiago fire burned out of control for a third day, causing an estimated $10 million in damage.

About 305 people were staying overnight at shelters set up at El Toro High School and El Modena High School as of early Wednesday, said Red Cross spokeswoman Daphne Hart.

On Tuesday, parking lots in Rancho Santa Margarita were jammed with evacuees from the canyon areas pulling horse trailers and bringing their pets. In San Juan Capistrano, desperate horse owners fleeing fires in both Orange County and San Diego brought more than 700 horses to the Oaks Blenheim equestrian center.

The Red Cross announced that people trying to locate evacuated family members can register and search the Red Cross "Safe and Well" list. (www.redcross.orgor call 866- GET-INFO.)

Fires swept across Camp Pendleton, with flames lapping on both sides of the I-5 freeway. The freeway was shut down in both directions shortly before 2 a.m. Wednesday between Cristianitos Road and Harbor Drive, according to California Highway Patrol.

"It's not looking good right now," said Camp Pendleton Fire Inspector Bill Gick. "For the morning commute, you can forget about it. The freeway is closed."

Fire's scope

The evacuated were fleeing a 19,200-acre fire that attacked canyon areas stretching from Silverado down to Trabuco canyons, burning up to 12 houses in the Modjeska Canyon area.

The fire grew by more than 3,000 acres Tuesday. The number of firefighters battling the flames grew to 600; about 120 engines and trucks were on the lines, but fire officials said the flames were 30 percent contained, an estimate that had not changed in more than 30 hours.

Fire officials said they expect to be fighting the fire at least into the weekend and possibly for as long as two more weeks.

Some 2,000 people were ordered to evacuate from Silverado Canyon; about 900 more were told to leave nearby Modjeska Canyon. Mandatory evacuation orders are in place for Modjeska, Silverado, Harris Grade, Hamilton Truck Trail, Williams, Baker, Ladd, Black Star, Holy Jim, Trabuco and Live Oak Canyons.

There were no major changes in fire conditions in the canyons overnight as of 3 a.m. Wednesday, said Angela Luedtke, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Authority. Smoky air will hover over the region through Thursday though winds are expected to slow down, aiding firefighters, said National Weather Service lead forecaster Greg Martin.

"It should allow them to start getting a handle on the situation and certainly it's a lot less favorable for new fires or for existing fires to spread," Martin said early Wednesday. "I think they sort of started to turn the corner yesterday or at least stay even."

Worried night

At the evacuation center set up at El Modena High School in Orange, a rock band came by to entertain a few residents on folding chairs outside the gym, near where a few pet cages sat. Inside, volunteers set out donations of food – pizza, hot dogs, cookies, bottled water, soda – as well as blankets, clothes and shoes. By 9:30 p.m., some of the families were lying on cots for the night. Others watched the news before lights out at 10:30 p.m.

Billy Rice, 56, came to the shelter with his daughter and her boyfriend, but his wife and mother-in-law stayed in a hotel because of the 83-year-old woman's health. The two bloodhounds, Elvis and Gracie, went to an animal shelter.

"We're not very rich people," Rice said.

Rice had left for work Monday morning and wasn't let back in to his Silverado Canyon home. The family was frustrated they couldn't go back to help in the tight-knit community.

"We're worried for our friends, too. The sad thing is, if one of us gets hurt, all of us hurt," Rice said.

Debra Albright, who came with her daughter, son and husband, worried about their cat, Hannah, who they left behind at their Black Star Canyon trailer. Their truck broke down, so they couldn't haul out their home.

Albright teared up as she watched the news, which has given little specific information about their area, she said.

"We were all stranded and we kind of felt alone out there," Albright said.

On Tuesday night, non-profit organizations began collecting non-perishable food to help shelters attend to victims of the fires across Southern California. Operation OC, a network of Orange County nonprofits, activated its emergency response network to start collecting food at the Orange County Rescue Mission, One Hope Drive, Tustin, starting at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Hart, of the Red Cross' Orange County chapter, said she fielded a call from a woman in Indiana who wanted to open her home to Californians stranded by the fire.

"The community and the country are really coming together to try to help people affected by the fire," Hart said.

Firefighter concerns

Throughout the night, flare-ups continued in the canyon areas, causing firefighters to return to the scene of previous battles in Modjeska Canyon and Cook's Corner.

Fire officials also worried that the easterly direction of the flames might take the fire into the Cleveland National Forest's 566,866 acres of flammable brush, trees and grass.

The Cleveland National Forest announced it would close Tuesday evening in response to four San Diego county fires burning in its vicinity.

The Santiago fire, if it reached the forest, would be the fifth.

“We don't want it to be in there because we'll be fighting it for a long time,” said Kris Concepcion, a battalion chief for the Orange County Fire Authority.

Fire Authority officials said they were working hard to establish a perimeter between the fire and the forest.

But Concepcion said fire may have already crossed the line into the forest.

“We may already be there. The point is not to let it get too far in,” he said.

The fire's movement towards the hilly and roadless area of the forest will make firefighting even harder, according to Chris Caswell, a Fire Authority spokesman.

“Conditions in the canyons are perilous,” Caswell said. “Firefighters have limited entrances and exits in the rugged country, making it difficult to save homes and keeping firefighters safe.”

“Everyone has to be extra cautious going in,” Caswell said. “When they decide to commit (to making a stand) they have to know how they're going to get in and how they're going to get out.”

Concepcion said firefighters increasingly might have to hike to the fire's location.

Fire officials urged residents to stay clear of the fire zone.

Decision to stay

Not everyone obeyed the order.

Thirty-year Modjeska Canyon resident Sal Giacinto, 54, spent Tuesday fighting to save his house in an area of Modjeska Canyon known as Olive Hill – a 40-home enclave deep in the rustic canyon. Neighbor Marcus Lynch , 49, tried to help him.

The two men soaked their homes using garden hoses braving a wall of fire that crept along a northeast canyon ridge. As night came the canyons surrounding Modjeska Canyon blazed in an orange-red glow. In some spots the fire leaped more than 30 feet, consuming chaparral and oak trees. Spot fires all around lit up the canyons sparkling like Christmas lights.

Giancinto had hiked more than four miles back into the canyon passing around police and fire barricades earlier in the day.

"I climbed back here," he said. "I'm not just going to watch my house burn."

Lynch never left the canyon. He hosed down his own home and helped neighbors turning on sprinklers and hosing their properties.

"I never left because I knew they wouldn't let me back in." he said Tuesday night.

Among the houses that burned in Modjeska Canyon was a well-known geodesic dome house at 28041 Modjeska Grade Road. Another house, known locally as “the chateau,” burned across the ridgeline.

Giancinto and Lynch said they knew the owners of the geodesic house, who they identified as Jim and Diane Curtis. They said just the night before the Curtises had tried to evacuate most of their animals including a herd of llamas. The llamas and one goat were spotted late Tuesday being pursued by two animal control officers, who eventually transported them to the Orange County shelter.

The house was not so lucky. One of the only things remaining was a cement slab bearing the imprints of the Curtis's daughters hands.

"There were fire trucks everywhere,” said Giacinto. “Why did they let (the geodesic home) go? They must have had half a dozen trucks here this morning. I can't believe they didn't protect it."

On the lines

Along Modjeska Canyon road, the flames were selective: along a winding stretch of Modjeska Canyon Road, some houses could be seen intact with children's toys still sitting in the front yard, while on either side their neighbor's houses were reduced to ash.

Firefighters could be seen spraying foam on houses in the canyon and lighting backfires at the base of hillsides in hopes that the new flames would burn up the hill and consume the larger fire coming down towards them. Firefighters retreated when the flames grew too high.

“It was intense. There was a lot of fire,” said Capt. Bob Mergl, a firefighter on loan from Vallecito Conservation Camp in Calaveras County in Northern California. “It wasn't particularly fast but it was really (big). When it came down you couldn't see anything because the smoke was so thick.”

Some residents made a perilous escape.

Earlier on Tuesday David Boquette, 49, was one of the last Modjeska Canyon residents to make it out of the far end of the canyon.

With fire cresting over the ridgeline he threw his two goats, Nanny and Billy, in his truck, and began driving down the winding canyon road. As flames leapt behind him cresting over the ridgeline, his only way out was to drive through a wall of fire.

"If there's anyone in there now, they're trapped," Boquette said. "I don't expect to find my house when I get back."

Tony Dominguez, a fire captain for Los Angeles County, spent the day battling blazes only to find his Trabuco Canyon house threatened by flames when he returned home.

“My neighbors helped me put the fire out. I had a couple on the roof and a couple on the ground,” Dominguez said. “They did a great job.”

Fire Authority officials said that most residents obeyed the evacuation order and there were no reports of injuries.

The Orange County Fire Authority's four helicopters were joined by four air tankers Tuesday afternoon, the first time large-scale air support has been used to fight the Santiago fire since flames broke out Sunday evening.

Fire officials began using planes to drop Foscheck, a flame-retardant on the hills above Cook's Corner, a tavern and restaurant at the corner of Santiago Canyon Road and Live Oak Canyon Road. Strong winds made flying perilous for much of the day.

Outlook

The National Weather Service extended a “Red Flag” warning of extreme fire danger up to Wednesday evening, based in part on low humidity and temperatures in the 90s. Weather conditions were poised to improve over the next two days, lowering slightly the still-elevated potential for fires, said Martin, of the NWS.

Concepcion said winds were now flowing from both the east and the west and that the “opposing and battling winds will make it more difficult” to fight the flames.

Concepcion said local battalions were finally getting outside help, including Los Angeles city firefighters and teams from Yuba City and elsewhere.

“We still have some unfilled resource requests but we're not screaming for help like we were yesterday,” said Concepcion.

But even with the help, Concepcion said his fighters had yet to get a handle of the 38-mile perimeter of active flames.

Concepcion said fire teams had been moving resources to catch up with outbreaks and flare ups of fire, rather than establishing a perimeter.

“We been scrambling to catch up,” Concepcion said.

Cook's Corner went from being a staging area to endangered Tuesday afternoon. The landmark motorcycle tavern and restaurant was evacuated at approximately 3:30 p.m. as flames swept over the hill in Modjeska Canyon. Residents said firefighters told them to evacuate immediately.

“It's coming toward us,” said Rhonda Palmeri, the tavern's event coordinator. “We're getting the food out right now.”

As of 8 p.m. Tuesday night, the restaurant was still standing, Concepcion said.

"They really haven't said anything other than the resources they have in there have done the best that they could," said Jessie Morris, a Modjeska Canyon resident who evacuated Monday night. "I know they're doing the best they can."

Not every resident was as understanding.

"There should be more planes here; the wind has died down,” said Shivji Savdharia, a resident of Wood Canyon in Silverado Canyon.

Vasily Semeniuta, whose house on the 2900 block of Wood Canyon backs up to the fire line, watered down his backyard Tuesday afternoon.

"Two engines are not enough," he screamed. "Do you see it? Please get more engines out here."

Then he ran to flag firefighters who told him no more help is coming to his block.

Evacuations still remain voluntary in that neighborhood and nearby Portola Hills, but residents nervously watched the fire.

"It's unbelievable look at that," said Savdharia, pointing to crackling fire creeping over the ridge.

Fullerton Fire Capt Dave Apple defended firefighting efforts, saying he had seen multiple water drops in the area.

"I think these homes are safe, but you don't know if the wind changes they could be in harm's way."

Impact on utilities

Fire ate up telephone poles and disrupted electrical service leaving about 2,500 Southern California Edison customers in the dark Tuesday night. A pocket of Irvine residents have not had power for more than 36 hours, Edison spokesman Jeremy Rawitch said. Crews are working around the clock to restore power, he said, but workers have not been allowed into some areas because of uncertain fire conditions.

No change is expected until after 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Rawitch said.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California reported a 652-million gallon spike in water demand as a result of the wildfires and heat throughout the region.

Bob Muir, a district spokesman, said most of the burden has fallen on MWD's Skinner Treatment Plant, which supplies San Diego County and southern Riverside County.

While he said that the current water shortages in Southern California obviously take a back seat to firefighting, the drain puts more strain on an already beleaguered system.

"This draw illustrates just how crucial storage is," he said.

The Irvine Ranch Water District is one of the agencies that provides water for the Santiago Canyon area. Marilyn Smith, a spokeswoman for that district, said water officials were in close contact with the fire commanders battling the blaze — topping off reservoirs this weekend and making sure water technicians could get to pump stations behind fire lines.

The Portola blaze firefighters brought under control Tuesday destroyed one of the Irvine Ranch pump stations. Workers hauled portable diesel backup pumps to keep the water running to firefighters – the temporary pumps and generators are still running.

The Santiago fire's three points of origin – all near the intersection of Silverado Canyon and Santiago Canyon Road – make county fire officials think the fire was deliberately set. Fire officials ask the public to phone in tips to the Orange County Fire Authority Arson Tip Line at 800-540-8282.

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