August 27, 2014

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346,000 homes in wildfires’ paths

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Walls of wind-whipped flames consumed hundreds of homes across tinder-dry Southern California today, raising the number of people forced to flee the flames into the hundreds of thousands.

The blazes bedeviled firefighters as fires roared from mountain passes to the edges of the state’s celebrated coastline, spreading so quickly that even hotels serving as temporary shelters for evacuees had to be evacuated.

By day three, the dozen wildfires had burned more than 1,200 homes and businesses, and the destruction may only be the start for the region. With forecasts calling for hotter temperatures and fierce wind gusts, the flames were proving nearly impossible to fight.

At least 346,000 homes were ordered to evacuate in San Diego County alone, sheriff’s officials said. But the total number could be much higher, and state officials were still struggling to estimate how many people had fled.

Marilee Bishop of Running Springs and her 10 year-old-daughter, Erica, rubbed their red eyes this morning as they woke up in a Wal-Mart parking lot where they spent the night after being forced to leave their home.

“No one ever expects something like this to happen to them,” said Bishop, as thick smoke rose in the skies behind her.

Since they began Sunday, the fires have burned at least 245,957 acres, or 384 square miles — an area larger than New York City.

As the fires spread, most out of control, smaller blazes were merging into larger, more fearsome ones. Evacuations were being announced in one community after another as firefighters found themselves overwhelmed by gale-force Santa Ana winds, some gusting to 70 mph.

President Bush declared a federal emergency for seven counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts. But White House press secretary Dana Perino said it was “very premature” to talk today about a presidential stop in the region.

“All of us across this nation are concerned for the families who have lost their homes and the many families who have been evacuated from their homes,” Bush said today. “We send the help of the federal government.”

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 today in Orange and San Diego counties.

Deputies arrested two men for looting in the community of Ramona, and there were a handful of other looting cases reported, said San Diego Sheriff’s Lt. Mike McClain.

The fires were exploding and shooting embers in all directions, preventing crews from forming traditional fire lines and severely limiting aerial bombardment, officials said.

“Lifesaving is our priority. Getting people out from in front of the fire — those have been our priorities,” said Capt. Don Camp, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Thousands of residents sought shelter at fairgrounds, schools and community centers. The largest gathering was at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, where up to 10,000 evacuees anxiously watched the stadium’s television sets, hoping for a glimpse of their neighborhood on the local news. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders pleaded for donations of blankets, cots, pillows and food for the people staying there, and officials said more people were expected to arrive today.

“It’s basically a mass migration here in San Diego County,” Luis Monteagudo, a spokesman for the county’s emergency effort.

San Diego County was ablaze from its rural north to its border region with Mexico, where the wildfires that started Sunday 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.

Forty-two people were injured, 16 of them firefighters.

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

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.

The fires have been made worse by fierce Santa Ana winds. The winds — which sweep through Southern California’s canyons in fall and winter — are stronger than normal, turning already parched scrubland into tinder. They generated walls of flame that bore down on housing developments in a wide swath.

East of Los Angeles, a two-front fire destroyed at least 160 homes in the Lake Arrowhead area, the same mountain resort community where hundreds of homes were lost four years earlier. Officials said at least 100 more homes were destroyed today in the mountain community of Running Springs, not far away.

Touring an evacuee camp at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger 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.