California Wildfires Trigger Widespread Evacuations

A firefighter lights backfires to protect the neighborhood of Bonita in San Diego, Calif., i i

hide captionA 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
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

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