Wed, Oct 24, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Fires force residential exodus in California

AP , SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA

A car is pictured in front of a series of houses devastated by fire in Rancho Bernardo, San Diego, California, on Monday.

PHOTO: AP

Wildfires blown by fierce desert winds have 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.

One person was reported killed. At least 16 firefighters and 25 others were reported injured since the blazes began on Sunday.

More than 265,000 people were warned to leave their homes in a region that stretched south to the Mexican border.

"It was nuclear winter. It was like Armageddon. It looked like the end of the world," Mitch Mendler, a San Diego firefighter, said.

Firefighters described desperate conditions that were sure to get worse in the days ahead, with hotter temperatures and high winds forecast for yesterday.

At least 655 homes and 168 businesses or other structures had been destroyed, including at least 133 homes in one mountain resort community. Thousands more homes were threatened across the region.

Firefighters -- who lost valuable time trying to persuade stubborn homeowners to evacuate -- struggled as winds gusting to 112kph 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 Capain Lisa Blake said earlier.

At least 14 fires were burning, said Patti Roberts, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

California 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.

The US Department of Defense agreed to send six Air Force and Air National Guard water or fire retardant-dropping planes yesterday to help the massive firefighting effort.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was sending cots, blankets and other supplies, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

At least 250,000 people were told to flee in San Diego County alone.

"It's probably closer to 300,000," County Supervisor Ron Roberts said.

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.

Schwarzenegger toured San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium later on Monday, 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.

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