SAN DIEGO — Wildfires blown by fierce desert winds Monday reduced hundreds 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.
At least one person was killed and dozens were injured. 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.
“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 mobile home in northern Los Angeles County as smoke darkened the sky over the nearby ridge line.
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, said Roxanne Provaznik, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry. The fire injured seven firefighters and one civilian, and was spreading unchecked.
A pair of wildfires consumed 133 homes in the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles, authorities said. Hundreds of homes were lost in the same community fours years ago.
At least 14 fires
Firefighters — who lost valuable time trying to persuade stubborn homeowners to leave — had their work cut out for them as winds gusting to 70 mph scattered embers onto dry brush, spawning spot 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 predicted earlier.
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, more than 150 miles up the coast, at least 265,000 people were warned to leave their homes. More than 250,000 were told to flee in San Diego County alone.
“It’s probably closer to 300,000,” said County Supervisor Ron Roberts.
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 bused to other lockups.
In San Diego County, where at least four fires burned, more than 200,000 reverse 911 calls — calls from county officials to residents — alerted residents to evacuations, said County Supervisor Roberts.
About 10,000 of them ended up at Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL’s Chargers, where thousands of people huddled in eerie silence during the day Monday, staring at muted TV news reports of the wildfires. A lone concession stand served coffee and doughnuts. Many gathered in the parking lot with their pets, which were banned from the stadium.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived later Monday to a more festive evening atmosphere, 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.”
The sprawling Del Mar Fairgrounds on the coast was also turned into an evacuation center, along with high schools and senior centers. Marine officials at Camp Pendleton opened their base to residents.
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 flee over the weekend, their publicists said.
Another blaze was started by a car fire. Flying embers started new fires at every turn. One of the San Diego fires was 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.”
Parts of seven California counties were ablaze. By nightfall, embers had ignited spot fires in ultrawealthy Rancho Santa Fe, a suburb north of San Diego. The fires burned in lemon orchards, their smoke choking the air around gated mansions.
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 across 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.
‘A tragic time’
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,” the governor 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.
Among the evacuees were members of a National Guard unit that had to flee its barracks, officials said.
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.”
The American Red Cross has set up a service for evacuees to register their status and for loved ones to search for evacuees. Either call 1-800-REDCROSS or go to disastersafe.redcross.org.
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