500 Homes Evacuated in Calif. Brush Fire

The Associated Press
Monday, March 12, 2007; 2:20 AM

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Fueled by strong winds and dry weather, a small brush fire quickly erupted Sunday, burning 2,036 acres of parched hillside and charring two houses while families in over 500 homes were evacuated.

The 3-square mile blaze damaged two other structures and threatened hundreds of homes through the day, said Capt. Steve Miller of the Orange County Fire Authority. But by late Sunday, no homes were being threatened and most evacuees were able to return home.

The two homes were mostly damaged on their roofs from falling embers, said Miller. Details on damage to the structures was not immediately available.

"The good news is that we haven't lost any homes completely," said Miller.

The fire was 30 percent contained late Sunday, and firefighters hoped to have full containment by Monday night, said Miller.

Though slowing winds helped firefighters make headway, there were still a some hotspots that could flare up and threaten homes if strong winds returned, authorities said.

"Things are looking good," said Orange Fire Capt. Ian MacDonald. "We have a little breeze tonight, but nothing compared to earlier today."

The fire, stoked by hot dry winds and fueled by chaparral, spread south and west quickly in an unincorporated part of Orange County and threatened multimillion-dollar homes here and in Anaheim Hills, about 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Authorities said the blaze may have been started by a vehicle fire, and were investigating if the car was stolen and set on fire to destroy evidence.

Through the afternoon, winds blowing up to 35 mph had made firefighting difficult for the more than 800 firefighters on the scene. Daytime temperatures were in the 90s and humidity was at 5 percent.

Richard Steffy said he saw the fire out his window when he awoke Sunday morning.

"Boom, billows of smoke," he said. "It looked so close."

Firefighters were aided by helicopters and planes dropping water and retardant on the flames, and police went door to door to warn residents to evacuate.

The area, like much of Southern California, is under a red flag alert, indicating a high fire danger. A prolonged drought has left the chaparral-covered hills highly combustible.

Fleeing fires has become a part of life for many residents.

Susan Snell, who has lived in Anaheim Hills for 23 years, followed a well-worn routine Sunday: She put her cat in a carrier, packed tax and insurance papers and photographs and found a good vantage point.

"It's freaky what you end up taking with you," she said as she watched television at the Anaheim Hills Community Center for updates.

Meanwhile, another brush fire had started about 20 miles away in Corona in Riverside County, said Capt. Julie Hutchinson from the California Department of Forestry. It had consumed about 25 acres but didn't threaten any houses, said Hutchinson.

© 2007 The Associated Press