NPR logo

Hear Scott Horsley, Andrew Phelps and Scott Craff talk about the wildfires on Day to Day

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15555396/15555389" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Wildfires Ravage Southern California

U.S.

Wildfires Ravage Southern California

Hear Scott Horsley, Andrew Phelps and Scott Craff talk about the wildfires on Day to Day

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15555396/15555389" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

There's no relief for firefighters and residents in Southern California as wildfires continue to burn out of control. Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated and hundreds of homes lost.

The winds had died down on Tuesday, but are still blowing enough to affect the wildfires, Scott Horsley reports. Fire officials say this is a very unpredictable time because the winds and fires are beginning to shift, making it difficult for firefighters to determine where the wildfires may spread.

Many Southern California residents are staying with friends, relatives and in hotels. There are also about two dozen emergency shelters set up around the area, including one at Qualcomm Stadium, where the San Diego Charges football team plays.

Additional firefighters and equipment are arriving, but officials say it will take time to extinguish the wildfires.

For now, about 10,000 evacuees are camped out at the Qualcomm Stadium in downtown San Diego. Andrew Phelps with member station KPBS talks to Ryan Anderson, a single dad of twin daughters who was forced to flee his home on Sunday.

Anderson says when he got the order to evacuate, he didn't have time to grab his wallet and could not bring his pets. In moments, he and his daughters became homeless and penniless.

Scott Craff, who is also staying at the stadium, talks to Alex Chadwick. He says several homes in his neighborhood were destroyed by wildfires, but he is not sure if his was one of them. The former South Carolina resident — who lived through annual hurricane threats — says wildfires are part of the danger of living in Southern California.

Also, UCLA atmospheric scientist Robert Fovell says the Santa Ana winds driving the wildfires originate in the cooler desert air surrounding Southern California. As the winds are forced down into the lower elevations of San Diego County, they compress and heat up, Fovell says, providing fuel to the wildfires.

California Wildfires Trigger Widespread Evacuations

Hear a report on hard-hit San Diego from Carrie Kahn on All Things Considered

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15561235/15567205" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Hear Scott Horsley, Andrew Phelps and Scott Craff talk about the wildfires on Day to Day

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15561235/15555389" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Hear Madeleine Brand talk to a man who saved his brother's house from the wildfire in California on Day to Day

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15561235/15555391" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
A firefighter lights backfires to protect the neighborhood of Bonita in San Diego, Calif., i

A firefighter lights backfires to protect the neighborhood of Bonita in San Diego, Calif., on Tuesday. Wildfires have forced the evacuation of at least 346,000 homes. Eric Thayer/Getty hide caption

toggle caption Eric Thayer/Getty
A firefighter lights backfires to protect the neighborhood of Bonita in San Diego, Calif.,

A firefighter lights backfires to protect the neighborhood of Bonita in San Diego, Calif., on Tuesday. Wildfires have forced the evacuation of at least 346,000 homes.

Eric Thayer/Getty

Wildfires continued burning Tuesday in Southern California, where at least 346,000 homes have been ordered evacuated and 1,200 homes and buildings have been left in ruins.

President Bush declared a federal emergency for seven counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts. He also sent federal disaster officials to California.

"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," the president said Tuesday. "We send the help of the federal government."

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 are trying to estimate how many people have fled.

One person has been killed and 42 have been injured, including 16 firefighters, during the fire's three-day rampage. More than 245,957 acres — 384 square miles — have burned, as powerful Santa Ana winds fan the flames.

Weather Worsens Conditions

Tuesday's forecast was expected to worsen the situation. Hotter temperatures and gusts of up to 70 mph were expected. Temperatures across Southern California were about 10 degrees above average and were expected to approach 100 degrees in Orange and San Diego counties.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders asked residents to stay off cell phones so that emergency crews can do their work. He also urged people to stay at home and off the freeways to clear the way for emergency vehicles and evacuees.

"Please stay at home today if you can," he said. "Stay off the freeways. Allow our emergency vehicles and people needing to evacuate to move around freely."

The blazes bedeviled firefighters as walls of flame whipped 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.

As the fires spread, smaller blazes merged 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.

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.

Saving Lives Is Priority

"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.

Sanders asked for donations of blankets, cots, pillows and food for the people staying there, and officials said more people were expected to arrive Tuesday.

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.

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

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.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

Winds, Heat Stoke California Wildfires

Winds, Heat Stoke California Wildfires

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15546008/15544872" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Hear a former U.S. Forest Service smokejumper talk about fighting fires in California on Morning Edition

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15546008/15545583" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tours fire-damaged Malibu, Calif. i

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 hide caption

toggle caption Annie Wells/AFP/Getty
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tours fire-damaged Malibu, Calif.

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. i

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 hide caption

toggle caption David McNew/Getty
A home goes up in flames near Fallbrook, Calif., on Monday.

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
A wildfire claimed a house in the town of Poway while sparing the residence next door. i

A wildfire claimed a house in the town of Poway in northern San Diego County while sparing the residence next door. Carrie Kahn, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Carrie Kahn, NPR
A wildfire claimed a house in the town of Poway 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.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.