Los Angeles Southern Californians endured a third day of destruction Saturday as wind-blasted wildfires torched hundreds of mobile homes and mansions, forced tens of thousands of people to flee and shut down major freeways.
No deaths were reported, but the Los Angeles police chief said he feared authorities might find bodies among the 500 burned dwellings in a devastated mobile home park that housed many senior citizens.
"We have almost total devastation here in the mobile park," Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said. "I can't even read the street names because the street signs are melting."
The series of fires has injured at least 20 people and destroyed hundreds of homes from coastal Santa Barbara to inland Riverside County, on the other side of the Los Angeles area. Smoke blanketed the nation's second-largest city Saturday, reducing the afternoon sun to a pale orange disk.
As night fell, a fire fed by a sleet of blowing embers hopscotched through the winding lanes of modern subdivisions in Orange and Riverside counties, destroying more than 50 homes, some of them apparently mansions.
A blaze in the Sylmar community in the hillsides above Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley destroyed the mobile homes, nine single-family homes and several other buildings before growing to more than 8,000 acres - more than 12 square miles. It was only 20 percent contained Saturday.
It sent residents fleeing in the dark Saturday morning as notorious Santa Ana winds topping 75 mph torched cars, bone-dry brush and much of Oakridge Mobile Home Park. The blaze, whose cause was under investigation, threatened at least 1,000 structures, city Fire Department spokeswoman Melissa Kelley said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Orange and Riverside counties. Fire officials estimated that at its peak 10,000 people were under orders to evacuate, including residents of the mobile home park.
Extreme fire conditions were expected to continue into this morning, with humidity at just 10 percent to 15 percent and winds gusting to 45 mph through canyons. Winds, however, could reverse direction and dip to 5-mph breezes this afternoon.
"We still have another 15 hours of red flag conditions," Robert Balfour, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego, warned fire officials at a briefing Saturday night.
Many heat records were set as the region withered under the Santa Anas. Downtown Los Angeles was 20 degrees above normal at a record 93 degrees.
At an evacuation center, Lucretia Romero, 65, wore a string of pearls and clutched the purse and jacket she snatched as firefighters shouted at them to flee hours earlier.
Romero said she saw smoke above the hills beyond the front door and within an hour, saw that a canyon across from her home was red with flame.
"They would drop water, the water would squash the flames and then two minutes later the flames would come back," she said. Firefighters soon banged on the door and gave them 10 minutes to evacuate.
Flames swept across the park and scorched cypress trees, Ruda said. Firefighters had to flee, grabbing some residents and leaving hoses melted into the concrete.
Ruda produced a burned U.S. flag on a broken stick as a sign of hope and bravery for firefighters. "The home that this flag was flying from is gone," he said.