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More than 1,400 homes destroyed across state -- and numbers expected to rise

SAN DIEGO – More than 346,000 homes have been ordered evacuated in San Diego County as wind-fueled wildfires across Southern California that have killed two people and destroyed more than 1,450 homes showed no signs of slowing Tuesday.
/ Source: The Orange County Register

SAN DIEGO – More than 346,000 homes have been ordered evacuated in San Diego County as wind-fueled wildfires across Southern California that have killed two people and destroyed more than 1,450 homes showed no signs of slowing Tuesday.

With the number of homes ordered evacuated, more than 750,000 people could easily have fled since the wildfires began over the weekend in San Diego County. The number of people joining the mandatory exodus there was expected to grow throughout the day as more communities were put on standby to leave as several fires burned a path toward the sea – through populated communities.

“It's basically a mass migration here in San Diego County,” Luis Monteagudo, a spokesman for the county's emergency effort. “The numbers we're seeing are staggering.”

Authorities placed reverse 911 calls to the San Diego County homes because of wildfire danger, according to sheriff's spokeswoman Jan Caldwell. The total number of homes evacuated could be much higher, and state officials were still struggling to estimate how many people had fled.

Elsewhere, more than 200 homes burned in the San Bernardino County communities of Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs along with another 1,200 homes, businesses and other buildings in San Diego County, fire officials said.

As dawn broke on the third day of the fires, the toll mounted as authorities issued new evacuations in San Diego, Orange and San Bernardino counties.

It was taking a human toll, too, with two dead.

One person died in San Diego County over the weekend, and authorities confirmed a second person died Tuesday of injuries received the day before in the Buckweed Fire in northern Los Angeles County, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jay Nichols. No details about the person or the circumstances surrounding the second death were immediately averrable, he said.

There were 45 injuries reported throughout Southern California, including at least 16 to firefighters. The University of California San Diego Medical Center Regional Burn Center was treating 16 patients from the San Diego County fires, including three firefighters and four others in critical condition.

Evacuees, meanwhile, were scattered all over.

Marilee Bishop of Running Springs and her 10 year-old-daughter Erica rubbed their red eyes Tuesday morning as they woke up in a Wal-Mart parking lot where they spent the night after evacuating.

“No one ever expects something like this to happen to them,” said Bishop, who rescued eight of her friends' cats and four pet frogs before leaving her mountain neighborhood.

Erica Bishop, her eyes filling with tears, hugged her mom as thick smoke rose in the skies behind them.

“This was really scary,” the daughter said.

The wildfires were spreading so quickly that even hotels serving as temporary shelters for fire evacuees were, themselves, evacuated.

Guests clutching pillows, pets and personal belongings swarmed out of the Doubletree hotel in Del Mar, just north of San Diego, after employees called each room to tell customers they had to leave. One guest wondered aloud whether there was any safe place left to stay, but Wanda and Paul Tomkinson took their latest evacuation orders in stride.

With some 373,000 acres, or 583 square miles, ablaze, President Bush declared a federal emergency for seven Southern California counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts.

Fire crews and fleeing residents described desperate conditions that were sure to get worse. Temperatures across Southern California were about 10 degrees above average and were expected to approach 100 degrees Tuesday in Orange and San Diego counties with sustained Santa Ana winds that were expected to gust in some areas up to 65 mph.

The fires were exploding and shooting embers before them in all directions, preventing crews from forming traditional fire lines and greatly limiting aerial bombardment, he said.

Thousands of residents sought shelter at fairgrounds, schools and community centers. The largest gathering was at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, where evacuees anxiously watched the stadium's television sets, hoping for a glimpse of their neighborhood on the local news.

Bruce Fowler, whose home in the Scripps Ranch neighborhood survived fires in 2003, was among them, hoping he would get lucky a second time.

“Every couple of years, you don't want to go through this worry,” Fowler said as he watched a stadium television and sipped root beer. “I never thought I'd be in a place like this, getting handouts.”

San Diego County was ablaze from its rural north to its border region with Mexico, where the wildfires that started late Saturday claimed their only fatality to date: Thomas Varshock, 52, of Tecate, a town on the U.S. side of the border southeast of San Diego. His body was found Sunday afternoon, the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office said, although no other details were made available.

In the northern part of the county, 500 homes and 100 businesses had been destroyed as a wildfire exploded to 145,000 acres and marched toward the Pacific Coast enclave of Del Mar, forcing a partial evacuation. The so-called Witch Fire was about 12 miles from the coast early Tuesday. Another 500 buildings were destroyed in Fallbrook in the Rice Fire, which began Tuesday. And 200 homes were destroyed in the Harris Fire, which burned through 70,000 acres.

Public schools were closed, as were campuses at the University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University.

At Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, about 40 aircraft that included F-18 fighter jets, C-130 cargo planes and Marine helicopters were evacuated to other bases in California and Arizona.

The scope of the infernos was immense and was reminiscent of the blazes that tore through Southern California four years ago this month, killing 22 and destroying 3,640 homes.

As the fires spread, most out of control, smaller blazes were merging into larger, more fearsome blazes.

The winds – which sweep through Southern California's canyons in fall and winter – are stronger than normal, turning already parched scrubland into tinder.

Amid the chaos and destruction, California officials pleaded for help.

The Department of Defense agreed to send six Air Force and Air National Guard water- or retardant-dropping planes Tuesday to aide the massive firefighting effort after a request by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Touring an evacuee camp at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, the governor pledged to do everything in his power to assist the firefighting effort and help those who have lost their homes.

“I will be relentless all the way through this,” Schwarzenegger said.

Full containment of the most fierce fires in San Diego, officials estimated, could come as early as Nov. 1.