Quarter-million people urged to flee as fires menace southern California

October 23, 2007 07:07
4 minute read.
Quarter-million people urged to flee as fires menace southern California

cali fires 224.88. (photo credit: AP)


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Wildfires blown by fierce desert winds forced hundreds of thousands of people in Southern California to flee, reduced hundreds of homes to ashes, and laid a hellish pattern of luminous orange over the drought-stricken region. At least one person was killed and dozens were injured. Authorities said at least 655 homes burned - about 130 in one mountain area alone - and 168 businesses and other structures were destroyed. Thousands of other buildings were threatened by more than a dozen blazes covering at least 520 square miles (1,346 sq. kilometers). More than 265,000 people were warned to leave their homes. "It was nuclear winter. It was like Armageddon. It looked like the end of the world," Mitch Mendler, a San Diego firefighter, said. Soon after nightfall, fire officials announced that 500 homes and 100 commercial properties had been destroyed by a fire in northern San Diego County that exploded to 145,000 acres (58,680 hectares). The fire injured seven firefighters and one civilian, and was spreading unchecked, said Roxanne Provaznik, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry. Firefighters - who lost valuable time trying to persuade stubborn homeowners to evacuate - struggled as winds gusting to 70 mph (112 kph) scattered embers onto dry brush, spawning more fires. California officials pleaded for help from fire departments in other states. "A lot of people are going to lose their homes today," San Diego Fire Capt. Lisa Blake said earlier. At least 14 fires were burning, said Patti Roberts, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the seven affected counties, opening the way for government aid. He also made 1,500 California National Guardsmen available, and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said the troops' main focus would be to prevent looting and help with evacuations. "Its a tragic time for California," he said. White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel said in an e-mail that President George W. Bush called Schwarzenegger to make sure the state is getting the help it needs. At least 250,000 people were told to flee in San Diego County alone. "It's probably closer to 300,000," said County Supervisor Ron Roberts. Among them were hundreds of patients moved by school bus and ambulance from a hospital and nursing homes, many still in their hospital gowns and wheelchairs. In Orange County, a 1,049-inmate jail was evacuated because of heavy smoke. The prisoners were taken by bus to other lockups. Actors Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer and Victoria Principal were among the celebrities forced to abandon their homes over the weekend, their publicists said. Later Monday, Schwarzenegger toured San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, home to the local National Football League team, where about 10,000 evacuees had spent the day huddled in eerie silence on the bleachers, staring at muted TV news reports. Others gathered in the parking lot with their pets, which were banned from the stadium. The governor arrived to a more festive atmosphere in the evening, with live music and mountains of catered food. The crowd hooted and hollered as he passed through, and Schwarzenegger later declared that the people of this makeshift city "are very happy." Dozens of motorists gathered on an Interstate 15 overpass in San Diego to watch flames race up a hillside and engulf at least a half-dozen homes. Witnesses said they watched flames jump west over the 10-lane freeway. Fire near the San Diego Wild Animal Park led authorities to move condors, a cheetah, snakes and other animals to the fire-resistant veterinary hospital on the grounds of the park. The large animals, such as elephants, rhinos and antelope, were left in irrigated enclosures. The world-famous San Diego Zoo was not immediately threatened. In Fallbrook, northeast of San Diego, a quick-moving fire forced thousands to flee. US Marine officials at neighboring Camp Pendleton opened the base to residents. One person died in one of the fires near San Diego. More than a dozen people were hospitalized with burns and smoke inhalation, including four firefighters, three of whom were listed in critical condition, officials said. Some of the injured were hikers, while others may be illegal immigrants. Among the evacuees were members of a National Guard unit that had to flee its barracks, officials said. At least one of the fires, in Orange County, was believed to have been set. And a blaze threatening the homes of the rich and famous in Malibu might have been caused by downed power lines, authorities said. Another blaze was started by a car fire. Flying embers started new fires at every turn. The blazes in San Diego County and elsewhere erupted one after another over the weekend. Things got worse Monday, when several new fires erupted and other fires merged. Parts of seven Southern California counties were ablaze. All San Diego police officers and detectives were ordered to return to work to help move people to safety and handle other fire-related emergencies.

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