Southern California - Raging wildfires


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Raging wildfires blaze toward coast

A quarter million people in Southern California are trying to outrun flames that have turned hundreds of acres of homes and woodlands to ash. A local fire chief says she's out of trucks and personnel to beat back the deadly flames. The San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park has been closed and animals are being moved. developing story

DEVELOPING STORY
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Calif. fires force 250,000 from their homes


By William M. Welch, Chris Woodyard and Patrick O'Driscoll, USA TODAY
RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. — Fierce, dry winds today and Wednesday are expected to continue whipping the flames of more than a dozen wildfires that have forced more than 250,000 Southern Californians to evacuate their homes. The fires, within a 150-mile swath from San Diego to north of Malibu, could become the most damaging series of blazes in California history.
About 100,000 acres had burned as of late Monday. Scores of homes and buildings had been destroyed, and an unidentified person was reported killed in the fires near San Diego, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services said.

"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. "I lost count" of how many homes burned.

Early Tuesday, President Bush declared an emergency for the seven-county region, speeding federal disaster relief.

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., has designated today's fire conditions in the mountains and interior valleys of Southern California as "extremely critical" — the center's highest designation of fire threat. The strongest winds will be near mountain passes, along ridges and through canyons, where sustained winds of 50 mph and gusts to 75 mph will be possible through the morning and early afternoon.

The fast-moving fires stem from a combination of severe drought and hot, dry Santa Ana winds that blow westward from the Mojave Desert and barrel down coastal mountains, becoming warmer and drier as they descend into the drought-plagued valleys of Southern California.

Authorities expressed frustration that residents in some areas weren't responding quickly to orders to flee areas hit by the fires, which bear eerie similarities to the 2003 blazes that killed 22 people and charred 700,000 acres.

Roxanne Provaznik, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry, estimated late Monday that 500 homes and 100 businesses had been destroyed in northern San Diego County. More than 100 more homes were burned in the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area in the San Bernardino National Forest, according to the forestry department. Officials struggling to gain even a measure of control over any of Monday's fires said the eventual damage will depend largely on how severe the winds are and how long they remain strong.

"The wind is the biggest problem. When it looks like we're making progress somewhere, the wind shifts and we're back to the beginning," said Michael Jarvis, a spokesman for CalFire, the state's wildfire-fighting agency. Four firefighters have been injured battling blazes.

Meanwhile, shelters across the region began accepting tens of thousands of residents who had left their homes.

At San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL's Chargers, thousands of people huddled quietly on the bleachers, staring at muted TV news reports of the wildfires. A concession stand served coffee and doughnuts.

In Orange County, a 1,049-inmate jail was evacuated because of heavy smoke nearby, sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino said. Inmates were being bused to another facility in Irvine.

About 200 patients were moved by school bus and ambulance from a hospital and nursing homes in Poway, northeast of San Diego County. Some evacuees were in hospital gowns and wheelchairs, carrying their medical records in plastic bags as they were taken to other medical facilities.

The sprawling Del Mar Fairgrounds on the Pacific Coast also was turned into an evacuation center, along with high schools and senior centers.

Those respites were surrounded by a region swamped by flames that moved so quickly they jumped across 10-lane Interstate 15 in San Diego in a matter of minutes.

"The flames were like 100 feet high, and it moved up the hill in seconds," said Steve Jarrett, who helped a friend evacuate his home in nearby Escondido.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the seven affected counties, opening the way for more state and federal aid. "It's a tragic time for California," he said in Malibu, where a church and several homes were destroyed over the weekend.

The firestorms come during one of the driest years on record: From Los Angeles to San Diego, the region has received less than one-third of its normal rainfall.

In other fire-prone areas of the West, less rain might mean less spring growth of grass and brush that later would dry into tinder for wildfires. But in Southern California, "brush still grows with minimal water," said Inspector Sam Padilla of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

The department has promoted and enforced brush control on private and public lands since 1923. But Padilla said no amount of clearing brush and grass could have prevented homes from being torched Monday. "In certain areas we had 80-mph winds pushing embers on top of roofs," he said. "There's not a lot you can do."

Although other regions of the country are suffering from similar droughts — especially in the Southeast — weather officials don't believe the ongoing wildfires are a harbinger of things to come elsewhere in the country.

The combination of season, climate and weather conditions driving this week's infernos is unique to Southern California, says Tim Brown, a fire climate and ecosystem specialist.

"This is, indeed, with the Santa Ana (winds), exclusively a Southern California pattern," said Brown, a research professor at the University of Nevada's Desert Research Institute in Reno.

"This is the kind of fire that has the potential to get much worse," said Don Windeler, director of model management for Risk Management Solutions, which gauges and manages disaster potential.

Stubborn residents a problem

As the fires spread Monday, rescue crews became increasingly annoyed with residents who ignored the calls for evacuations.

"Those folks who are making those decisions are actually stripping fire resources" by forcing authorities to assign firefighters to be rescuers, said Bill Metcalf, chief of the North County Fire Protection District in San Diego County.

Metcalf said every fire evacuation results in some people who cannot leave because of medical conditions and others who don't because they're "too stubborn." Even in a "mandatory evacuation," in which firefighters go door-to-door with sheriff's deputies to ask people to leave, residents cannot be forced to do so, he said.

On Monday afternoon, as fire lapped at 1,000 acres west of Fallbrook and moved toward the city's downtown area, Metcalf's voice rose in frustration.

"I'm standing in downtown Fallbrook right now, and we ordered an evacuation, and there are people walking down Main Street looking at the fire," he said.

Metcalf said five engines weren't "able to put a single drop of water on the fire" Sunday "because they were performing 50 rescues of people and their families who didn't evacuate and then panicked" when a fire got near their house.

Late evacuations also caused bottlenecks in Portero and Ramona on Sunday, sometimes blocking firetrucks from entering the cities.

Mike Shultz of Malibu said sheriff's deputies had been up and down his road with bullhorns Monday, telling residents to leave. But Shultz said there had been blacker skies and stronger winds near his house, so he didn't feel he needed to leave yet. "I've been through this before," he said. "It looks like an acceptable risk."

On the beach, David Rosenthal, 25, explained why he had decided to spend the day surfing even as a lifeguard boat sprayed the wooden Malibu Pier with water to keep floating embers from sparking it. He cited the "laid-back attitude" of the people in Southern California.

Fires 'were coming quickly'

Some were more than eager to flee their homes.

Margie Nute, 44, left her house at 6:45 a.m. with her daughter, Haley, her son, Will, a cat, a dog and a pink betta fish named Shimmer. Nute said she ran every red light between her home in Torrey Hills and the on-ramp to Interstate 5.

"I heard the fires were coming toward us, that they'd picked up speed and were coming quickly," Nute said. She drove to her parents' house in Point Loma while her husband, Jim, remained at the house.

"He's wetting down the back canyon," she said. "He's taking down artwork off the wall — the kids' and the real artwork; the Picasso and Haley and Will's."

In the town of Encinitas along Pacific Coast Highway in San Diego County, cars lined the roadway heading out of town.

Scott Smith, owner of the Highway 101 Diner, cleared his tables from the sidewalk and shut down his restaurant shortly after noon in order to evacuate. He said he and other residents received automated "reverse 911" phone calls urging them to leave immediately. He was going to get his wife and children and head north to stay with friends in Orange County.

"The air quality has gotten a lot worse in the last hour," he said.

Like a ghost town

As residents wrestled with the stay-or-go decision, about 11,000 firefighters worked on the fires.

Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County was like a ghost town, emptied by evacuation orders and with brush and leaves whipping down empty streets.

Along Del Dios Highway, flames lapped from underbrush along both sides of the road, and black smoke billowed from a home engulfed in flames. Other homes were saved by clearings in the brush around them, though some Mediterranean-style homes were blackened by flames. Ashes rained from the sky like snowflakes.

A unit from the San Diego County Fire Department rolled into the neighborhood to try to save several luxurious homes by the Crosby Golf Course. Each firefighter took a position by a home in an attempt to beat back approaching flames.

"Hopefully, you can knock it down with water, but with this wind, who knows?" said San Diego County firefighter K. Smith.

Schwarzenegger ordered 800 National Guard troops off the U.S.-Mexican border to help firefighters. All San Diego police officers and detectives were ordered to help move people to safety and handle other fire-related emergencies.

"We have more houses burning than we have people to fight them," San Diego Fire Capt. Lisa Blake said. "A lot of people are going to lose their homes."

Woodyard reported from Malibu; O'Driscoll from Denver. Contributing: Jill Lieber Steeg in San Diego; Alan Gomez, Doyle Rice, Oren Dorell and Bob Swanson in McLean, Va.; Associated Press
 
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_44193686_malibu_firemen416afp.jpg



Firemen have been tackling wildfires across California,
where 260,000 acres (105,000 hectares) of land and more than 700
houses have been destroyed.


_44193720_schwarzenegger220ap.jpg



Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
visited some of the most affected areas,
including this burnt church in Malibu.


_44193789_valley_oaks416getty.jpg


At least 100 homes were destroyed by fire near Fallbrook,
whipped up by 100mph (160 km/h) winds.


_44193820_car416ap.jpg


The havoc created by the fires prompted President George
W Bush to declare a federal emergency.


_44190414_416_9malibu_gett.jpg


About 1,000 firefighters were called to the blaze at Malibu,
home to many wealthy celebrities.


_44190412_416_6kashan_gett.jpg


Castle Kashan was also destroyed. Built in the 1970s,
it was the home of local philanthropist Lilly Lawrence.


_44190716_416_3malibu_gett_ok.jpg


The ground is parched after a record summer heatwave that
caused wildfires across large swathes of the western US,
from northern Washington state all the way south to New Mexico.


_44190413_416_8santabarb_ap.jpg


Air crews have been called in to dump water
and fire retardant in forests across the state.

Credit: BBC News
 
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20071023202709990026



A massive wildfire that has already burned
through 1,800 homes and nearly 600 square miles
of Southern California raged out of control
Tuesday as President Bush declared
a federal emergency for seven counties.


20071023202309990003


Unpredictable Santa Ana winds have stoked the
flames and firefighters said they will be unable to gain
the upper hand until they subside. "It'll go all the way
to the ocean before it stops,"
San Diego Fire Capt. Kirk Humphries said.


20071023132409990002

Flames engulf a home Tuesday in Running Springs,
Calif. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
said the blazes threatened 68,000 more homes


20071023132509990014


The ruins of a home smolder Tuesday
after a blaze roared through parts of Rancho Santa Fe.



20071023132209990025


Firefighters nap Tuesday outside a home
they were protecting in Spring Valley. Officials said
wildfires were spreading in all directions,
preventing crews from forming traditional fire lines.


20071023064409990012


Smoke rises from a fire in the Ramona area
of San Diego County Monday. Dry conditions and high winds
are expected to continue Wednesday.

20071023064209990019


Residents watch as flames run up a hillside
behind homes in Foothill Ranch on Monday.
"The sky was just red. Everywhere I looked
was red, glowing," said a woman who who fled
her mobile home in northern Los Angeles County.


20071022214709990017


Firefighters work to keep fast-moving flames from
reaching homes in Canyon Country.
The blazes have forced more than 500,000 people to flee.


20071022214409990024

Fire evacuees set up camp at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego Monday.
Authorities prepared the stadium, where the San Diego Chargers
football team plays, as an evacuation center and shelter.


20071022142409990041

A fire roars through a home in Rancho Bernadero.
Schwarzenegger pledged to do everything possible to help
firefighters and those who have lost homes.
"I will be relentless all the way through this," he said.


20071022071809990073

Houses and cars burn Sunday in Canyon Country.
Near Los Angeles, winds carried embers across the Pacific Coast Highway,
closing the popular road. The fire "has multiple heads in multiple directions,"
a fire official said.


20071023120709990043

A map shows locations of the region's
major fires as of 11:23 AM ET Tuesday.

Credit: AP

California Wildfires Force 500,000 to Flee

President Bush Declares Federal Emergency for Seven Counties
AP said:

Posted: 2007-10-23 23:00:24
Filed Under: Nation News, Natural Disaster
SAN DIEGO (Oct. 23) - Faced with unrelenting winds whipping wildfires into a frenzy across Southern California, firefighters conceded defeat on many fronts Tuesday to an unstoppable force that has chased more than 500,000 people away.
Unless the shrieking Santa Ana winds subside, and that's not expected for at least another day, fire crews say they can do little more than try to wait it out and react — tamping out spot fires and chasing ribbons of airborne embers to keep new fires from flaring.

"If it's this big and blowing with as much wind as it's got, it'll go all the way to the ocean before it stops," said San Diego Fire Capt. Kirk Humphries. "We can save some stuff but we can't stop it." Tentacles of unpredictable, shifting flame have burned across nearly 600 square miles, killing one person, destroying more than 1,800 homes and prompting the biggest evacuation in California history, from north of Los Angeles, through San Diego to the Mexican border.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the flames were threatening 68,000 more homes. "We have had an unfortunate situation that we've had three things come together: very dry areas, very hot weather and then a lot of wind," Schwarzenegger said. "And so this makes the perfect storm for a fire." In Rancho Santa Fe, a suburb north of San Diego, houses burned just yards from where fire crews fought to contain flames engulfing other properties. In the mountain community of Lake Arrowhead, cabins and vacation homes went up in flames with no fire crews in sight.

"These winds are so strong, we're not trying to fight this fire," said firefighter Jim Gelrud, an engineer from Vista, Calif. "We're just trying to save the buildings." More than a dozen wildfires blowing across Southern California since Sunday have also injured more than 45 people, including 21 firefighters. The U.S. Forest Service earlier reported a fire death in Los Angeles County's Santa Clarita area, but officials said Tuesday that information was erroneous.

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 data, that about 513,000 people were ordered to leave. "It's basically a mass migration here in San Diego County. The numbers we're seeing are staggering," said Luis Monteagudo, a spokesman for the county's emergency effort.

President Bush, who planned to visit the region Thursday, declared a federal emergency for seven counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts. The sweeping devastation was reminiscent of blazes that tore through Southern California four years ago, killing 22 and destroying 3,640 homes.

The ferocity of the Santa Ana winds in 2003 forced crews to discard their traditional strategy and focus on keeping up with the fire and putting out spot blazes that threatened homes. Fire crews were especially concerned about dense eucalyptus groves in Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe, fearing the highly flammable trees could turn neighborhoods prized for their secluded serenity into potential tinderboxes.

The usual tactic is to surround a fire on two sides and try to choke it off. But with fires whipped by gusts that have surpassed 100 mph, that strategy doesn't work because embers can be swept miles ahead of the fire's front line. In those cases, crews must keep 10 to 30 feet back from the flames or risk their own lives, Los Angeles County firefighter Daryl Parish said.

Added Rocklin Fire Department Capt. Martin Holm: "We do what we can. A life's a lot more important than a house." Any flame longer than 8 feet is considered unstoppable, and even water and fire retardant will evaporate before they reach the ground, said Gordon Schmidt, a retired U.S. Forest Service deputy director of fire management.

"In these situations, the strategy generally is to fall back," he said. "You pick and choose your priorities in terms of what you can protect. Instead of trying to stop the fire, you try to prevent it from burning resources." In the suburbs north of San Diego, firefighters did just that as fingers of flame pulsed across a 10-lane freeway and raced up a hill on the opposite side in just seconds. The fire engulfed white-washed homes at the top of the ridge.

Groves of eucalyptus trees exploded in the heat in one ritzy cul-de-sac in Rancho Santa Fe, sending off a scattered popping that sounded like machine gun fire. Firefighters parked their rigs in the driveways of the most threatened homes and hosed down fences and open space around homes as a blood-red sun set over a sky choked with smoke and falling ash.

Firefighters battling two fast-moving blazes in Lake Arrowhead, in the San Bernardino Mountains about 130 miles east of Los Angeles, were also taxed by steep terrain, winding roads and a forest packed with dead or dying trees. More than 200 homes burned in Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs, fire officials said.

At least three times in the past two days, fire crews have been forced to "pull off, and wait for things to calm down" because of danger, said San Bernardino National Forest Ranger Kurt Winchester. "In a lot of places, you just have to back off and let the fire go," he said. "There's nothing we can do."

The one person confirmed dead was identified as Thomas Varshock of Tecate, a town on the U.S. side of the border southeast of San Diego. He died over the weekend after he ignored warnings to evacuate and authorities left to take care of other evacuations, the San Diego Conty Medical Examiner's Office said.

The San Diego medical examiner's officer also listed four other deaths as connected to the wildfires because they occurred during or after evacuations. Three people were in their 90s and died from natural causes; the fourth was a woman who died after falling at a restaurant. In Rancho Santa Fe, neighbors tried to protect a friend's home with a garden hose Monday night as flames raced up a ridge directly behind the house. Yards away, an engine crew kept watch as another home, already fully engulfed, burned to the ground.

"We told the firemen about (this house) and we put out a few hot spots," said friend Gary Rich. "They told us once they put out that house, they'd come over here." But, Rich said, encroaching flames were making him nervous and he might leave before then.

Fighting a gusty blaze also puts the firefighters in harm's way. At least twice in the last two days, firefighters have had to unfurl their emergency fire shelters — small fire-resistant tents to shield them when they can't escape a fire. Weather conditions only grew worse, with temperatures across Southern California about 10 degrees above average. Temperatures were in the 90s by mid-afternoon and wind gusts up to 60 mph were expected in mountains and canyons.

In the San Diego suburb of Del Dios, fire completely destroyed one home but seemed to touch other items at random. Two lawn chairs and an umbrella were left in a burnt, melted heap on the patio. But behind the house, near a murky brown swimming pool, two chaise lounges and a four-foot-tall decorative fountain survived unscathed.

J.C. Playford, an evacuee from the nearby community of Ramona, surveyed the damage and wondered whether his own home was still standing. "I've got two reports, one person told me it's gone, and one person said it's still there," he said, "So I have no idea."
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.

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