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Half a million people have fled as wildfires continue to torch SoCal homes

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — More than a half million people in Southern California fled wind-whipped wildfires that have killed one person and destroyed more than 1,600 homes, bedeviling a fire official who complained that the state's response to the flames was inadequate.

The number of people joining the mandatory exodus — and the number of homes destroyed — was expected to grow as several fires continued to burned a path toward the sea — through populated communities.

In San Diego County, authorities placed evacuation calls to 346,000 homes, said Luis Monteagudo, a spokesman for the county's emergency effort. The county estimates, based on census tracts, that approximately 513,000 people were ordered to leave.

"This is the largest mass evacuation of a natural disaster in California history," said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Orange County, a fire chief lashed out at the state, saying air support, such as tankers, might have helped control fires early on, before they burned homes, if it had been available. It wasn't because so many fires struck California almost simultaneously beginning last weekend.

"There is not enough resources to go around ... because of the number of fires that are going on in our state right now," said Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather, who said a fire that has been growing since Sunday was still threatening homes and the safety of firefighters.

Prather said a dozen firefighters battling blazes in Orange County's Irvine and Lake Forest areas had to deploy emergency shelters, a last resort when they are surrounded by flames, or take cover in buildings.

"They should not have had to do that," he said. "If we'd had the resources earlier to take care of those lines with hand crews, we wouldn't have been in that situation."

Prather's comments came minutes before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, touring fire damage in Lake Arrowhead, promised more help, including more people and equipment.

When asked about the fire chief's critical remarks, the governor said: "I'm not aware of that."

When pressed whether he was unaware of the criticism or unfamiliar with a state plan developed to avoid the issues the fire chief raised, he said: "All I'm saying is that I'm very happy that everyone is working so well together under such difficult circumstances."

Responding to criticism from local officials, Berlant said the agency had gone on high alert late last week and shifted resources to the San Diego area in advance of the forecast Santa Ana winds.

On Tuesday, the fire agency took the additional step of declaring the fire season over in Northern California, a maneuver allowing it to send virtually every state fire engine, some from as far as 800 miles away, to battle the Southern California fires.

Caravans of fire engines could be seen rolling down Interstate 5 — more than 500 miles and a day's drive from the closest blaze.

More than 200 homes burned in the San Bernardino County communities of Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs along with another 1,400 homes, businesses and other buildings in San Diego County, where one person died. Another 530 homes in San Diego County were reported damaged.

The victim was identified as Thomas Varshock of Tecate, a town on the U.S. side of the border southeast of San Diego, the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office said. Authorities had told him to evacuate, but he didn't leave and authorities left to take care of other evacuations, the Medical Examiner's Office said.

There were 45 injuries reported throughout Southern California, including at least 21 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.

With some 375,000 acres, or 585 square miles, ablaze, President Bush declared a federal emergency for seven Southern California counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts. He also scheduled a visit to the region on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense agreed to send six Air Force and Air National Guard water- or retardant-dropping planes.

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 approached 100 degrees Tuesday in Orange and San Diego counties where sustained Santa Ana winds gusted in some areas 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.

In Orange County, flames tore through Modjeska Canyon, forcing firefighters to take cover and destroying homes.

"Our house is still there right now but there are only six houses on our street that are still standing," said Vallary Townsell, 25, who lives in the canyon and works as a reporter with local cable TV Channel 3.

Thousands of residents throughout Southern California 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.

The clubhouse at the famous Del Mar racetrack was converted into a shelter. Hundreds of people starred at television sets blaring reports from the fire lines and damaged neighborhoods. Many dozed on cots, their countless pets penned in with temporary fencing.

"We're going crazy trying to get back into our apartment just to see what kind of damage we've got," said Tim Harrington, who arrived at the racetrack with his wife, son and their two pet rats. "Then we'll pick up the pieces from there."

Just outside the clubhouse, barns that usually house thoroughbred race horses sheltered a variety of large animals.

"I'd say spirits are pretty good. The biggest question is, 'When can we go back to our homes?' We have to tell them we have no idea. All we can tell them to do is tell them to watch those TVs," volunteer coordinator Beverly Ferree said.

By Tuesday evening, residents were being allowed back into two evacuated neighborhoods in San Diego — Del Mar Heights, near the ocean, and Scripps Ranch — as well as an evacuated portion of the city of Poway. No homes were lost in these particular neighborhoods.

Public schools were closed, as were campuses at the University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University. National Guard troops were manning highway checkpoints in San Diego County.

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. At nearby Camp Pendleton, two fires were burning — one near the air station and the other in a training area, a base spokesman said. Families in four military housing areas on the base were told to be ready to evacuate.

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.

Schwarzenegger, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator R. David Paulison and other officials toured burn areas in San Diego and the evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium before holding a brief news conference.

"If the weather cooperates, maybe we can turn the tide (Wednesday)," Chertoff said, adding "hopefully the wind will die down," so firefighting aircraft grounded by strong gusts could return to the skies.

State insurance commissioner Steve Poizner said he was taking steps to combat the fallout of the fires, including sending his department's numerous services experts and fraud teams to the region and working with insurance companies to accelerate payments.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, predicted Tuesday that the fires could cost federal, state and local governments more than $100 million.

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

Associated Press writers Chelsea J. Carter, Jeremiah Marquez, Daisy Nguyen, Robert Jablon and Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles, Martha Mendoza in Lake Arrowhead, Jacob Adelman in Santa Clarita, Elliot Spagat and Scott Lindlaw in San Diego, and Pauline Arrillaga in Del Mar contributed to this report.