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California fire hits more houses

Winds and heat add to damage; scores evacuated

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- A wildfire leaped through dense housing tracts in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains yesterday, destroying more than 50 homes, threatening hundreds of others, and forcing thousands of people to flee.

The fire, which erupted around 9 a.m. about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, was fed by fierce Santa Ana winds as it devoured 6,000 acres of chaparral within hours. No injuries were reported, but the blaze and an even larger wildfire nearby closed highways and choked the region with heavy smoke and flaming ash.

The cause of the fire was unknown and no injuries were reported, but more than 50 homes were destroyed, San Bernardino National Forest spokeswoman Georgia Smith said.

The fire moved erratically, burning down one house, then skipping two before snaring another. In some cases, backyards burned and houses were unscathed, or burned only partially. Firefighting helicopters flew low to drop water on houses.

Evacuations were ordered for thousands in San Bernardino and the community of Crestline. The main evacuation center at the local airport was so packed, city officials urged families to go to alternate sites.

Still, many residents refused to leave and tried to fight the fire with garden hoses.

Bobby Rodriguez of Calimesa came down to check on his friend's house and arrived to find the back of it on fire. He grabbed a garden hose and was watering the already burned detached garage, then trying to prevent the main house from catching fire.

City Fire Chief Larry Pitzer said more than 1,000 firefighters were battling flames along a 12- to 15-mile front. The fire spread furiously both up and down Old Waterman Canyon. It also split east and west, creating two fronts for firefighters to battle. "We have a fire front . . . that is hop-scotching and wind-driven," Campos said, adding that the flames were jumping a block to a block and a half at a time. "It just exploded pretty much."

San Bernardino County officials requested state fire aid to gain more firefighters because local ranks were depleted, city fire Battalion Chief Jess Campos Campos said. The county also asked the governor to declare a state of emergency and the request was under review, said Eric Lamoureux, spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services.

Winds were gusting to 45 miles per hour, pushing embers ahead of the fire mass and adding to the pall of smoke from a 16,000-acre fire about a dozen miles away in the Rancho Cucamonga area.

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