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Crime

Update on Sayre Fire in Sylmar: Biggest Arson Investigation in Los Angeles history?

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Sat, Nov 15, 2008 at 4:53 PM

Updated at 4:53 pm and revised number of homes burned

Los Angeles police and fire officials are now floating the chilling possibility that they may find bodies inside the Oakridge Park mobile home neighborhood once they get a handle on the Sayre Fire, still only 10 percent contained. By their calculations, there are too many burned-out hulks of cars left near houses, implying that some people didn't make it out.

One firefighter said it was the most ferocious fire he'd ever seen inside the Los Angeles city limits, and told a story of heroics in which he and three other firefighters found an elderly woman inside her burning home, and hustled her out just as the windows exploded from intense heat.

With the Oakridge Park mobile home development in the San Fernando Valley looking as if it had been "hit by a nuclear bomb," and roughly 500 of its 700 closely packed houses burned down to soft piles of ash, the Los Angeles Police Department declared the Sayre Fire a massive crime scene on Saturday.

Los Angeles City Fire Department arson teams were reportedly preparing to launch what one official said could grow into the largest arson investigation in memory, rivaling the massive manhunt to identify the person who started the horrific Laguna Beach fire of Oct. 27, 1993, that torched 441 homes.

One shell-shocked Oakridge Park victim, an unidentified woman with her hair still matted from awakening in the middle of the night to encroaching flames, told local TV stations she hopes the arsonist — if it in fact turns out to be arson — gets "strung up" so the more than 1,000 adults and children left homeless can "take hits at him."

Local residents speculated that if it was arson, a mentally troubled perpetrator may have been set on his destructive path after seeing tall walls of flame springing up in the hills above Sylmar late Friday night.

There were so many fires driven by hot Santa Ana winds, including a major outbreak in Yorba Linda, that one blogger listed them all in a bleak cavalcade of bad news.

Police and fire officials pleaded with the public to stay away from the Northeast San Fernando Valley, where several key freeways were shut down for much of the day. Meanwhile, a gloom of ash spread across the entire Valley, blanketing a huge stretch of the region, home to 1.6 million residents, in grimy particles.

The eerily similar Laguna Beach arson disaster of 1993 eventually drew more than a dozen investigators and included federal agencies. Orange County authorities have publicly said they believe they know who did it. A Mexican immigrant falsely confessed to the crime, but the real perpetrator was never arrested. It's now considered a cold case, like dozens of other puzzling arson disasters in Southern California.

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