California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tours the burned site of Malibu Presbyterian Church in Malibu, Calif., on Monday. Wind-whipped wildfires are still sweeping across Southern California.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tours the burned site of Malibu Presbyterian Church in Malibu, Calif., on Monday. Wind-whipped wildfires are still sweeping across Southern California. Annie Wells/AFP/Getty
A home goes up in flames near Fallbrook, Calif., on Monday. Santa Ana winds are fanning the flames of more than a dozen wildfires in Southern California.
A home goes up in flames near Fallbrook, Calif., on Monday. Santa Ana winds are fanning the flames of more than a dozen wildfires in Southern California. David McNew/Getty
Carrie Kahn, NPR
A wildfire claimed a house in the town of Poway in northern San Diego County while sparing the residence next door.
A wildfire claimed a house in the town of Poway in northern San Diego County while sparing the residence next door. Carrie Kahn, NPR
More than a quarter of a million people have been evacuated and 600 homes have been destroyed, as fierce wildfires continue to burn over a large part of Southern California.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is calling on neighboring states to send whatever help they can, as thousands of California firefighters try to battle blazes in seven counties.
Three big fires north of Los Angeles are on the brink of merging into one giant blaze. For now, though, San Diego County appears to be getting the worst of it.
Throughout the night, mass evacuations continued in San Diego County as firefighters struggled to stay ahead of the flames.
Shelters Filling Fast
Wildfires roared into communities stretching from the Mexican border to the county's suburbs 90 miles to the north. Fleeing residents were directed to nearby shopping centers. Hundreds took refuge at larger shelters hastily set up at the famous Del Mar Racetrack and Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers.
Soon after opening Monday, the community center in the city of Poway, Calif., was full. Officials had to turn people away and focus their attention on getting enough cots, blankets and food to the 500 people jammed inside.
Poway's hundreds of acres of parks and open space — dry and brittle from a lack of rain — provided plenty of fuel for the fire, which destroyed at least 60 homes in the city.
The destruction was reminiscent of the fires that hit San Diego County in the late fall of 2003. The so-called Cedar Fire killed 22 people and destroyed more than 3,600 homes.
Poway resident Herb Allen's home survived that fire, but he is not so sure about this one. Instead of worrying, though, Allen found comfort in a quiet corner of the community center where he turned his thoughts into poetry.
"Let's all be thankful, for most past favors, sheriffs volunteers are real saviors. The Poway Center is a true blessed place, when in need of help it is no disgrace," he mused.
A few miles from the center, firefighters worked into the evening, mopping up hot spots in the smoldering remains of burned homes. As the sun slipped behind the surrounding hillsides, the smoky brown sky turned several shades of orange.
Many Homes Lost
San Diego firefighter John Gates wiped his bloodshot eyes. He said crews worked all day to save houses.
"We just did the best we could and picked the houses that we thought we could save — and saved a lot of them," Gates said. "And, at the same time, it breaks your heart when one right next door burns to the ground."
San Diego County authorities do not have an exact count of the losses, but they estimate that more than 600 burned.
To the north, in neighboring San Bernardino County, another 133 homes were lost in the mountain resort of Lake Arrowhead. In all, 14 fires raged over 350 square miles.
On Monday, Schwarzenegger toured much of the region from the beach community of Malibu to San Diego's fire command center.
He said he spoke with President Bush twice and has been assured that any needed resources to fight the fire will be provided. But, the governor said, what is needed most is something that only Mother Nature can provide.
"I think that what we need is the weather to change," Schwarzenegger said. "We need rain. We need the wind to stop and we need it to get wet out there. That's what we need right now."
Weather forecasters said that is not about to happen anytime soon. Hot, dry, windy conditions are expected to continue Tuesday.
Meanwhile, evacuees are waiting to find out if their homes survived.
"Watching the fire go up and down the mountain — you know, absolutely powerless to do anything — that was the worst thing. It's like out of a horror movie, or something," said evacuee Paul Chernyshev.
But Chernyshev and thousands more like him will have to wait a lot longer until authorities are willing to let them back into their scorched neighborhoods.