Homes Spared, Lost in Fires' Random Destruction

A car and home destroyed by fire in San Diego County. i i

hide captionSan Diego authorities say wildfires have destroyed more than 1,700 homes.

Scott Horsley, NPR
A car and home destroyed by fire in San Diego County.

San Diego authorities say wildfires have destroyed more than 1,700 homes.

Scott Horsley, NPR

President Bush plans to travel to San Diego Thursday to visit the scene of this week's massive wildfires.

More than a half-million people were forced out of their homes because of the fires — the nation's largest evacuation since Hurricane Katrina.

Federal officials are eager to show a more responsive face to this disaster, which has already destroyed more than 1,700 homes.

Wildfires are still burning in large parts of San Diego, but some residents have been allowed to return to areas that were spared by the flames.

San Diego Neighborhood Hit Hard

You can still make out the "Happy Halloween" banner hanging from the balcony of a house on Aguamiel Road in northern San Diego. But most of the word happy has been blown away by the same Santa Ana winds that set fire to many of the other houses on the block.

This area was one of the hardest hit within the city. But even here, the damage is uneven. One smoking wall is all that is left of house. Next door, even the rose petals are barely singed.

Authorities are not letting residents back into this neighborhood, except for quick visits with a police escort. After a nervous night in a hotel, Todd and Colleen Wong were thrilled to find their house still standing.

"Oh, we were so overjoyed," Todd Wong said.

"We didn't know until 10 minutes ago that our house was here," Colleen Wong added.

The Wong's retrieved a couple of duffle bags full of belongings, then headed back to the hotel to wait for an all clear. Todd Wong said someone must have been looking out for them.

"Looking at the devastation around here, we were real lucky," he said. "We rolled out of here without anything at 5 o'clock in the morning. We woke up, and we had four minutes. It was crazy."

Down the street, utility worker Daniel Bias marked the location of underground gas lines. Authorities want to make sure and gas leaks are repaired before residents are allowed to return for good.

In the meantime, City Councilman Brian Maienschein has been walking the neighborhood, compiling a grim list of addresses where homes are no longer standing.

"As you can see, this is just the list that I've made," he said. "What would you say, there's close to 100 homes on here. So it's very, very significant."

Maienschein has been through this before.

County, City Coordinate Efforts

Four years ago this week, many of the homes in his district were destroyed when another firestorm swept through San Diego. At the time, there complaints that city and county governments were not cooperating, and that residents received little warning about the deadly blaze.

This time around, authorities used an automated telephone system to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people, and that may have saved lives. Maienschein said the local governments have also presented a more united front.

"From what I've witnessed, the city and county have worked very well together," Maienshein said. "I think that's been a real plus."

The state and federal governments are also eager to show they are doing their part.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff paid a high-profile visit to evacuees at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium Tuesday. He promised a "full court press" by the federal government, both in confronting the immediate fire threat and rebuilding afterwards.

"I know there's a lot of anxiety on the part of people about what they're going to face when they go home," Chertoff said. "I know there's a request for a disaster declaration in the works, and as soon as that gets up there and gets approved, we will be working very closely with you to restore the communities that have been hurt by these terrible fires."

Among other things, a disaster declaration allows the federal government to provide individual assistance, emergency loans and help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

David Paulison, a former firefighter who now heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the government has come a long way since the last time thousands of Americans were forced to take shelter in a football stadium.

"Somebody asked me earlier, 'What was the difference between what happened in Katrina and what's happening here today?' What we learned after Hurricane Katrina [was] we have to work together. We have to be organized," Paulison said.

Local businesses and individuals have also stepped in, donating truckloads of food, water, diapers and other supplies.

So far, there has been little second-guessing of the government's response. But even as more and more firefighters pour into California, hard choices have to be made.

One state fire chief said with so many fires burning across Southern California, there are more homes in danger than there are fire engines to defend them.

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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