Fires Take Great Toll in San Diego

More than a dozen wildfires continue to rage across Southern California. San Diego County is still getting hit the hardest. Hundreds of thousands of residents have been forced to flee the flames, and at least 700 homes have been destroyed.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

It is the largest evacuation in California history. Hundreds of thousands of people have now fled the wind-driven wildfires in the southern part of the state. More than 1,200 homes have burned.

And for another day, the greatest toll is around San Diego, as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: The evacuations keep coming from the tawny beach community of Del Mar to the sprawling suburbs near the Mexican border. San Diego authorities say more than half a million people have fled their homes.

MARIE WATSON: Flames coming over the mountain. Yeah, it's kind of so scary. My girlfriend came up and picked me up and we came up here.

KAHN: Before dawn, Marie Watson and Barbara Sampetti(ph) came to Qualcomm Stadium, which is usually home to the San Diego Chargers. They slept beside their car in a tent in the parking lot and are now filling up garbage bags with donated essentials.

WATSON: Food stuff and juices and...

BARBARA SAMPETTI: Water.

WATSON: Yeah.

SAMPETTI: A lot of trail mix and granola bars.

KAHN: Hundreds of volunteers have been handing out toothbrushes, sunscreen, diapers and face masks.

CHRISTINE WRIGHT: It will be 91 degrees today. It is very important. The winds will be 35 miles per hour. I'm letting you know. Get the masks while I have them. Please.

KAHN: Volunteer Christine Wright says she's never seen so many people needing help. Four years ago when fire storms killed 22 people in San Diego and destroyed more than 3600 homes, she regretted not doing more.

WRIGHT: I promised myself I would do everything. I'll help if we ever have a fire like this again.

TONY BRADLEY: Whenever you see a deck of cards like that, this is what you do. Give them that (unintelligible) they all go in the same direction.

KAHN: Local magician Tony Bradley found his own way to help out.

BRADLEY: I'm here to make everybody laugh, smile and forget about what's going on because San Diego is such a wonderful place and I've gotten so many blessings from being here in San Diego. I just want to share it.

KAHN: While many found ways to pass the hours, the waiting was too much for others.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO-WAY RADIO)

KAHN: To the north, in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Bernardo, police began escorting residence into the charred neighborhood to retrieve prescription medicine only. Following the police car in was terrifying, says Jenny Alim(ph). She says she didn't know what she would find since they left the house so suddenly.

JENNY ALIM: We didn't have any time to grab anything except ourselves and our paperwork. Our pictures and everything - but they're here. They're here and that's important.

KAHN: The Alim's house looks just fine but down the street, one is still smoldering, and San Diego police officer Dave Brecht is checking out around the perimeter.

DAVE BRECHT: They can go through the other side (unintelligible) the flames. They're storing their stuff back up in the...

KAHN: Brecht says flames have reignited in the backyard and he needs to alert fire officials that the undamaged homes next door are once again threatened.

BRECHT: It's on the list...

KAHN: What's the list?

BRECHT: ...of houses that are starting back up. So...

KAHN: So you just call it and...

BRECHT: Call it in. Let them know. And they'll get to it when they get to it. So...

KAHN: Resources are definitely stretched thin, as more than a dozen fires continue to burn over a 300-square-mile area of Southern California.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Diego.

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California Wildfires Trigger Widespread Evacuations

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

itoggle 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

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