Desert-born winds sweeping down on southern California today knocked down power lines and set fires that forced the evacuation of up to 2,000 people and caused at least 12 injuries and $50 million in damage.
The Santa Ana winds, making their usual spring appearance with unusual fury, spread flames that destroyed or severely damaged 50 small apartment buildings in Anaheim, about a mile from the Disneyland amusement park.
Smoke from the fire, started by downed power lines that ignited palm fronds and shingle roofs, blew high and fast in 40- to 50-mph gusts of wind.
"I've been around 17 years, and its the worst one I've ever seen," said Dave Bergman, an Anaheim fire inspector. Refugees from the four-unit apartment buildings near the intersection of Ball Road and Euclid Street filled a temporary shelter at Ball Junior High School, just upwind from the disaster.
"All my life I wanted to live in California," said a woman who said she recently arrived from the East. "Now I've been here four days and everything I have is gone."
Fire companies came "from all over the place," Bergman said, including equipment from El Toro, 15 miles south of Anaheim, and Los Angeles, 20 miles north.
The city recently had passed an ordinance requiring smoke detectors in all apartments, but many had not been installed yet. Residents said they were alerted to the fire by telephone calls or banging on their doors by neighbors or firemen after the fire began about 6 a.m.
Bergman said four firemen were injured in the Anaheim blaze, five to 15 residents suffered some injuries and 20 more firemen suffered smoke inhalation.
In Garden Grove, where power lines ignited shingle roofs and residental gas meters and destroyed or damaged eight houses, three firemen suffered injuries, a fire official said.
Anaheim fire chief Bob D. Simpson estimated total damage in the city at $50 million. Garden Grove fire inspector Brad Spell said damage there totaled about $2 million.
Norm Morgan, an Anaheim fire investigator, said the wind snapped power lines which "ignited palm fronds and the fronds ignited the roofs." The fire traveled quickly as the wind blew flaming shakes from one roof to the next.
Anaheim regulations prohibit the heavy shingles on roofs in hillside homes where flammable grass and trees are more common, but the danger of such fires in the middle of the city was considered minimal.
Francis Nutto, an associate planner with the city building division, called the fire the result of "a combination of unfortunate circumstances that doesn't gang up on you very often."
Don Gales of the National Weather Service here said the winds would continue for at least another day, but probably not with the same ferocity. Santa Ana winds, apparently named for a mountain pass where Spanish settlers first encountered them, whip into California whenever an unusual high pressure area forms over the deserts to the north.
Unusually cool desert air is the most dangerous, for it sinks low and scours the coastal lowlands as it rushes from the high-pressure zone, while warm air rises higher.
By the time the winds such as those today, from a reasonably cool desert in the low 70s, reach Los Angeles and Orange Counties, however, they have been warmed above 80 degrees by compression, Gales said.
A researcher at the Los Angeles library said some southern California residents insist on calling them "Santana" winds, the apparent result of a long-forgotten campaign by publicists for the Orange County community of Santa Ana who thought the name association was frightening away home buyers. CAPTION: Picture 1, Buildings smolder after fire swept through a residential area of anaheim yesterday, destroying or severely damaging 50 apartment buildings about a mile from Disneyland. AP; Picture 2, The roof of an apartment house burns as wind whips flames toward other homes of Anaheim. Up to 2,000 people were evacuated. Damage was estimated at $50 million. AP