Firefighters took advantage of dwindling winds today to gain the upper hand on raging brushfires that destroyed 125 residences, injured 150 persons and blackened about 67,000 acres around southern California.
Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., a candidate for the U.S. Senate, signed a declaration of emergency for Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties. The declaration is the first step in obtaining government aid for the victims.
The biggest of the major fires was in the Malibu area west of Los Angeles, where county Fire Chief Clyde Bragdon said the burned area was expected to exceed 50,000 acres. Arson was the suspected cause.
"The fire had a blowtorch effect coming out of Malibu Canyon," Bragdon said from a command post established at Pepperdine University.
"It just came through like a funnel to the ocean."
Dry Santa Ana winds, blowing from the desert and gusting to 60 mph Saturday, drove flames over ridgetops in the Santa Monica Mountains, down the canyons to the sea. The northern front of the fire burned into neighboring Ventura County.
The winds generally calmed today, allowing 13 planes and seven helicopters equipped with water tanks to take to the sky. But some higher elevations and canyons were still buffeted by gusts of up to 45 mph and temperatures were in the 80s and 90s. Still, the 750 firefighters got a line around 80 percent of the fire. Sunbathers and surfers lolled on the beach as the smoke drifted overhead.
An estimated 100 houses and mobile homes were destroyed or damaged by the blaze. Property damage was put at $36 million.
"The sparks were so thick it was like driving into a blizzard with your headlights on high," said Tony McEwan, 38, an engineer who saved his home in Latigo Canyon, north of Los Angeles.
"All the houses across the canyon have propane tanks and they were exploding and sounding like 747s taking off at the airport." Blackened foundations dotted both sides of the road where houses had been.
One of the hardest hit areas was the Paradise Cove trailer park on the coast north of Malibu, where 45 double-width mobile homes were leveled. Despite the destruction, there were no major injuries.
Many cattle, horses and goats were killed, including a horse that had to be shot after it ran panic-stricken into a steel shaft jutting out of Malibu's Corral Beach.
Other smaller fires burned in southern California under bright, sunny skies that showed occasional patches of murky smoke from the blazes.
In Orange County, near the city of Orange, crews were being released as containment neared of a 16,800-acre fire that reduced 22 expensive homes to rubble Saturday. Damage was estimated at about $15 million and six firefighters and 140 civilians were treated at Red Cross centers for injuries ranging from smoke inhalation to the broken hip a man suffered when he fell down a ravine while escaping the flames.
A small fire broke out early today in Laguna Beach, burning 45 acres, destroying two houses and badly damaging a third. One person was reported injured before the flames were controlled.