Published October 23, 2007
SAN DIEGO – Wildfires blown by fierce desert winds reduced scores of Southern California homes to ashes, forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee and laid a hellish, spidery 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 Sunday. 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 240,000 acres, the equivalent of 374 square miles.
Early Tuesday morning, President Bush followed in California Governor Schwarzenegger's steps, declaring a state of emergency in the seven counties and said the federal government would give the state everything it needs to deal with the disaster.
"The sky was just red. Everywhere I looked was red, glowing. Law enforcement came barreling in with police cars with loudspeakers telling everyone to get out now," said Ronnie Leigh, 55, who fled her home at a mobile home park as smoke darkened the sky over the nearby ridge line.
Firefighters — who lost valuable time trying to persuade stubborn homeowners to leave — were almost completely overwhelmed as gale-force winds gusting to 70 mph scattered embers on the dry brush. California officials pleaded for help from fire departments in other states.
A pair of wildfires consumed 128 homes in the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles, authorities said.
At least 14 fires were burning in Southern California, said Patti Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.
From San Diego to Malibu, stretching more than 150 miles of coastline, some 500,000 people were warned to leave their homes, the Los Angeles Times reported early Tuesday. A majority of the people told to flee were in San Diego County, including in the coastal city of Del Mar. Earlier reports had placed the number of evacuees closer to 300,000.
Hundreds of patients were moved by school bus and ambulance from a hospital and nursing homes, some in hospital gowns and wheelchairs. Some carried their medical records in clear plastic bags.
A 1,049-inmate jail in Orange County was evacuated because of heavy smoke. The prisoners were taken by bus to other lockups.
In San Diego, more than 194,000 reverse 911 calls — calls from county officials to residents — were made, alerting residents to evacuations, county Supervisor Ron Roberts said.
Many of those told to evacuate ended up at Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL's Chargers, where thousands of people huddled in eerie silence on the bleachers, staring at muted TV news reports of the wildfires. A lone concession stand served coffee and doughnuts.
Many evacuees gathered in the parking lot with their pets, which were banned from the stadium.
The sprawling Del Mar Fairgrounds on the coast was also turned into an evacuation center, along with high schools and senior centers.
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.
Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer and Victoria Principal were among the celebrities forced to abandon their homes over the weekend, their publicists said.
Another blaze was started by a car fire. Flying embers started new fires at every turn.
San Diego County fires were burning so fast that authorities did not have an accurate count of how many homes had been destroyed.
"It was nuclear winter. It was like Armageddon. It looked like the end of the world," Mitch Mendler, a San Diego firefighter, said as he and his crew stopped at a shopping center parking lot to refill their water truck from a hydrant near a restaurant. Asked how many homes had burned, he said, "I lost count."
Tom Sollie, 49, ignored evacuation orders in Rancho Bernardo to help his neighbors spray roofs on his street with water. His home was untouched, but he watched a neighbor's house reduced to nothing but the remnants of a brick chimney. "The house went up like a Roman candle," Sollie said.
He added: "If we weren't here, the whole neighborhood would go up. There just aren't enough fire trucks around."
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.
Firefighters complained that their efforts to stop the flames were delayed when they were confronted by people who refused to leave their homes.
"They didn't evacuate at all, or delayed until it was too late," said Bill Metcalf, a fire boss. "And those folks who are making those decisions are actually stripping fire resources."
As flames, thick smoke and choking ash filled the air around San Diego County's Lake Hodges, Stan Smith ignored orders to evacuate and stayed behind to help rescue the horses of his neighbor Ken Morris.
"It's hard to leave all your belongings and take off, and the bad thing is you can't get back in once you leave," Smith said.
"I heard the cops come by, and I just ducked," Morris said.
Besides, said Smith, "Lots of time the fire doesn't ever come. It's come really close before. I've seen it so bad you couldn't even hear yourself talk over the flames and ash blowing everywhere."
Black smoke blanketed much of northern San Diego and nearby suburbs as flames hopscotched around homes in Rancho Bernardo, a community with many elderly people, destroying one of every 10 homes on one busy street.
Highways, canals and other features normally act as firebreaks. But the towering flames and flying embers rendered them useless this time.
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.
"The flames were like 100 feet high and it moved up the hill in seconds. It was at the bottom, it was in the middle, and then it was at the top," said Steve Jarrett, who helped a friend evacuate his home in nearby Escondido.
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.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the seven affected counties, opening the way for government aid.
"Its a tragic time for California," he said in Malibu, where a church, homes and a mansion resembling a medieval castle were destroyed over the weekend.
White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel said in an e-mail that President Bush called Schwarzenegger to make sure the state is getting the help it needs.
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.
San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said fire crews were stretched thin and were anxiously awaiting reinforcements from other parts of the state.
"The winds are up, it's very, very dangerous conditions," Kirk said. "Fires are popping up all over the place."
Flames forced the evacuation of the San Diego community of Ramona, which has a population of about 36,000.
Christine Baird, 42, was ordered to evacuate her apartment in the Rancho Bernardo area at 5:30 a.m. She moved to California from Canada earlier this year.
"Instead of snow we had ash all over the car," she said. "This is all new for me. We've got no family in the area, so there's really nowhere else to go."
In late October and early November of 2003, 15 fires in many of the same areas killed 22 people and destroyed 3,640 homes. Ten years earlier, in October and November of 1993, 26 fires in those areas killed four people and damaged or destroyed 1,200 structures.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.