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Mon, Jan. 20

At least 15 people die, fire claims 1,000-plus homes<BR>Firefighters face another grueling day

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — With wind-driven flames dancing on the edge of Los Angeles' densely populated San Fernando Valley, firefighters dug in today for another brutal day of fighting what was developing into the most destructive – and one of the deadliest – wildfire seasons in state history.

Five blazes have destroyed 1,134 homes and killed at least 15 people around Southern California, as of press time this morning. The flames dotted an area that extended, on a straight line, more than 100 miles – from the Mexican border north to the suburbs of Los Angeles.

A handful of other fires that hadn't hit any homes also consumed tens of thousands of acres of brush and forest lands, bringing the total burned to more than 500,000 acres.

"It's a worst-case scenario. You couldn't have written anything worse than this. You can dream up horror movies, and they wouldn't be this bad," said Gene Zimmerman, supervisor of the San Bernardino National Forest, the area in which two of the most destructive fires began this past week.

The Old Fire, which began near the forest on Saturday, has destroyed at least 450 homes and officials have blamed it for the deaths of two people. It was 10 percent contained today. The Grand Prix Fire, which was 25 percent contained, has destroyed at least 77 homes since it ignited near the forest on Oct. 21.

One of the biggest fire fights today was unfolding in the Santa Susana Mountains that separate Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, where 1.3 million people live, from Simi Valley in neighboring Ventura County.

The Simi Valley fire, which has destroyed 16 homes since it began Saturday, was dangerously close to a gated community of million-dollar mansions in Los Angeles' Chatsworth section. It was only 5 percent contained.

One advantage firefighters appeared to be taking into the battle was a decrease in Santa Ana winds. The hot, dry winds that blow from the desert to the sea this time of year had gusted to as much as 70 mph in recent days, pushing fires down on homes. They had let up today, however, and weren't expected to return at least until Wednesday.

Meanwhile, 90 miles away in San Bernardino County, the Old Fire and Grand Prix Fire, which merged earlier in the week, had jumped a highway and was moving as one contiguous wall of flames toward the mountain resort town of Lake Arrowhead. A beetle infestation that has devastated the surrounding trees has left the town, which sits at an elevation of 5,100 feet, particularly vulnerable.

"It is one of our major concerns at the moment," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Carol Beckley said.

Officials were concerned about "crowning," in which flames leap from one treetop to another, leaving powerless firefighters on the ground.

"If that occurs we don't have the capability to put those fires out," Beckley said. "It will be a firestorm."

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