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Southern California inferno

Toll: Thousands flee raging wildfires

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. More than 600 homes burned, nearly 130 in one mountain area alone, and thousands of other buildings were threatened by more than a dozen blazes covering at least 520 square miles.

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.

"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 flames darkened the sky.

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 mountain resort community of Lake Arrowhead, in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles, authorities said.

"We're stretched very thin, and we can't get any planes up," said forest spokesman John Miller.

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

More than 265,000 people from Malibu to San Diego were warned to leave their homes. More than 250,000 were told to flee in San Diego County alone, where 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 large zip-lock 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.

At San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL's Chargers, 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. Another blaze was started by a car fire. Flying embers started new fires at every turn.

"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, while a neighbor's "went up like a Roman candle," Sollie said. "If we weren't here, the whole neighborhood would go up. There just aren't enough firetrucks 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.

"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 his neighbor Ken Morris' horses.

"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 a large number of 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 I-15 overpass in San Diego to watch the fire engulf at least a half-dozen homes. Witnesses said they watched flames jump west over the 10-lane freeway.

One person died in a fire 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. "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.