Fires Prompt Evacuations in San Diego County

More than a dozen wildfires are burning out of control in Southern California, threatening thousands of homes and forcing evacuations in San Diego County. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in the region.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, we're going to venture to a speck of land way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where we will search for sharks.

BRAND: First to our backyard, Southern California. At least a dozen wildfires are burning from San Diego County all the way up to Malibu and into the rugged hills north of Los Angeles. The flames destroyed several landmark buildings in Malibu and they are closing in on homes, forcing evacuations, and taxing the resources of firefighters.

Bill Metcalf, a fire coordinator in Northern San Diego County, gave this assessment of what firefighters are facing today.

Mr. BILL METCALF (Firefighter): The situation has gotten dramatically worse overnight and we are faced with the situation this morning which is worst than many of us could have imagined just a few short hours ago.

BRAND: Grim words from Bill Metcalf.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared that Southern California is officially in a state of emergency.

NPR's Carrie Kahn has been out all night covering those fires. She joins us now.

Welcome back to DAY TO DAY, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN: Thank you.

BRAND: Well, as we just heard, some dire news from Bill Metcalf there - the biggest concerns being in San Diego County. What's happening there?

KAHN: It is a grim situation. There was a fire that has been burning overnight in the town of Ramona. And now there is another fire which is about 20 miles to the north of it. They think that the two are going to merge. They are evacuating thousands of homes - the entire town of Ramona, which is about 10,000 homes. And so they are evacuating a 20 by 20 miles square area of people in San Diego County.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders is really urging San Diegans to listen to the news and to get out when told.

Mayor JERRY SANDERS (San Diego, California): This fire is moving very quickly, faster than sometimes we can even get all those calls made. And watch your TV, listen to the radio, and be prepared. Have your car packed right now if you hadn't already been told to evacuate.

BRAND: Now, Carrie, this part of the country - San Diego County - they're used to these kinds of fires, right?

KAHN: There was a terrible wildfire. I feel like we're back here talking about this not too long ago. It was four years ago. The Cedar Fire was just devastating in San Diego County. A dozen people died near Ramona and it just consumed almost 300,000 acres of the county, destroyed hundreds of homes, and it is very fresh in people's memories, those fires, and hopefully they will heed the warnings when they hear them.

BRAND: And on TV and elsewhere a lot of the focus seems to be in Malibu, of course where a lot of celebrities have their homes. You were there, what was that like?

KAHN: It is a smaller fire there, but it is such a compact area. And you've been to Malibu. The canyons come right down to the ocean and there is so much housing there - multi-million dollar homes, but there's also a lot of activity there.

I had a little dispute with the newscasters at NPR yesterday when I was filing my spots. I said these are hurricane-force winds, and so they were saying they can't be hurricane-force winds. I said they are almost 80 miles per hour. That is technically a hurricane. And I was up at Pepperdine University, which was in the early morning hours. The flames were right at the edge of the campus. Over 800 students were corralled into the cafeteria and into their basketball arena there and watching the flames around the campus. And the wind gusts there were blowing me over, and I'm...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Blowing you over! You're a reporter. You're used to this. You don't normally get blown over.

KAHN: Well, it was just - it was an amazing sight. The fixed wing aircraft there. They had those big super scooper helicopters that come down and drop their hoses. There's two little ponds there at Pepperdine and they suck those dry. They couldn't go in to the ocean where they usually take the water out because there was just so much wind. And it was so erratic, you'd be on certain parts of Malibu at one point in the day and then the fire would just hopscotch up to the hills or down back to the beach where they burned a home right on the beach. It was an amazing sight.

BRAND: Although I noticed in some of the pictures in the newspapers, surfers took advantage of, you know, the wind and the waves and...

KAHN: I think they took more advantage of the people being evacuated and there was less people and less people to fight with out in the ocean. It was - there were some surfers out there, yes.

BRAND: This is a normal time of the year for the Santa Ana winds; is that what's happening here?

KAHN: It is, but there's also just - we've had this horrible drought. If you remember just in 2004, 2005, we had a lot of rain, so the chaparral grew real fast, and then we just had this terrible drought. It is so dry out there. But you hear seasoned firefighters say they'd never seen wind this strong and this hot. And when the winds come down into those canyons, it just sucks the humidity out of there, and in a dry chaparral you've got a lot of feel for a tremendous fire. And so we're going to watch those winds, which are expected through today and maybe even tomorrow. So it's a difficult situation in Southern California.

BRAND: NPR's Carrie Kahn, thank you.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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Wildfires Scorch Southern California

Rick and Kelly DeGraw struggle to keep from being blown over by the wind. i i

Rick and Kelly DeGraw struggle to keep from being blown over by the wind that toppled their fifth-wheel trailer as they drove on the I-210 freeway in Fontana, Calif. They were trying to reach a safe location from fires and high winds, but were quickly caught by the wind. In the distance, a plume of smoke blows down from a major wildfire near Lake Arrowhead. David McNew/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption David McNew/Getty Images
Rick and Kelly DeGraw struggle to keep from being blown over by the wind.

Rick and Kelly DeGraw struggle to keep from being blown over by the wind that toppled their fifth-wheel trailer as they drove on the I-210 freeway in Fontana, Calif. They were trying to reach a safe location from fires and high winds, but were quickly caught by the wind. In the distance, a plume of smoke blows down from a major wildfire near Lake Arrowhead.

David McNew/Getty Images

Wildfires fanned by fierce desert winds consumed huge swaths of bone-dry Southern California Monday, burning dozens of buildings and threatening hundreds more from Malibu to San Diego, including a jail, a hospital and nursing homes. Wind gusts were reported at speeds ranging from 30 mph to more than 60 mph.

So far, about a dozen wildfires have forced thousands to flee their homes and scorched more than 40,000 acres.

At least one person was killed near San Diego, and four firefighters and at least 10 other people were hospitalized. Some of the injured were hikers and others may be illegal immigrants, said California Department of Forestry spokesman Matt Streck.

Overwhelmed firefighters said they lacked the resources to save many houses.

"We have more houses burning than we have people and engine companies to fight them," San Diego Fire Captain Lisa Blake said.

"A lot of people are going to lose their homes today."

Nearly 250,000 people were forced to flee in San Diego County, where hundreds of patients were being moved by school bus and ambulance from a hospital and nursing homes, sheriff's spokeswoman Susan Knauss said.

The fire also forced the evacuation of the entire community of Ramona, which has a population of about 36,000. Several structures were burned on the edge of town, and sheriff's deputies called residents to alert them that the fire was approaching the city, said San Diego sheriff's Lt. Phil Brust.

Winds Fan Flames

Several new fires began Monday in San Diego County, and firefighters were on high alert as the hot, dry Santa Ana winds continued to fan the flames.

"The winds are up. It's very, very dangerous conditions," San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said. "Fires are popping up all over the place."

Firefighters said the enormity of the fires has been overwhelming.

"You do not expect something to stretch our resources to this magnitude," Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Sam Padilla said. "To try and staff something this big, you cannot predict it."

Governor Declares Emergency

About a dozen blazes have burned more than 40,000 acres from north of Santa Barbara to San Diego. Late Sunday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in seven Southern California counties.

One fire burned more than 14,000 acres in a region about 70 miles southeast of San Diego, just north of the Mexican border town of Tecate, Streck said.

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

In Malibu, about 700 firefighters worked to protect hundreds of homes in several upscale communities nestled in the hills. About 1,500 people were evacuated, and the blaze destroyed a church and several homes, one of them the landmark Castle Kashan, a fortresslike home with turrets and arched windows.

The castle belonged to Lilly Lawrence, the daughter of a former Iranian oil minister. She said she was able to gather a few things before the fire engulfed her home, including some jewelry and memorabilia that included Elvis Presley's Army fatigues.

She didn't seem too worried about losing most of her belongings in the fire.

"My parents taught me not to allow my possessions to posses me," Lawrence told KABC-TV. "So, that's the story. The house is a house."

Winds carried embers across the Pacific Coast Highway, closing the popular road and setting fire to cars and trees in the parking lot of a shopping center where a supermarket, drug store and other shops were damaged.

In all, five homes and two commercial buildings were confirmed lost throughout the Malibu area, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said. Nine more homes were damaged, he said.

The fire is expected to burn for another two to three days, he said. Until the blaze is extinguished, "there will literally be thousands of homes that will be threatened at one time or another," he said.

The fire may have been started by downed power lines, Capt. Mike Brown said.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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