Wildfires Raging Across Southern California

More than a dozen wildfires continue to tear through Southern California. Half a million people have been evacuated and nearly two thousand buildings destroyed.

Madeleine Brand reports from San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, where thousands are taking shelter. Brand visits a neighborhood in San Diego County where residents are returning to their homes. The neighborhood has a distinctly post-apocalyptic feel.

One man returned home to find his house still intact, but found that a few of his friends' homes were destroyed — including one that was nothing more than ash, and broken pieces of tile and concrete. He and another neighbor are trying to make sure no other houses in their neighborhood wind up the same way.

A few years ago, the fire department went around to San Diego County neighborhoods advising people to clear the underbrush from around their homes. Many of the homeowners who did not heed the fire department's advice lost their homes.

Also, pilot Lynn McGrew, who has been flying air tankers and dumping fire retardant on the raging fires, says the wildfires are very spotty and unpredictable, making it difficult to fight.

Every year, pilots like McGrew go through training that prepares them to fly thought the fire zones — ideally at an altitude of 150 feet.

The wildfires are so widespread across Southern California that the airbase McGrew is flying out of nearly caught fire. However, she says the fire was contained and she was able to continue her mission combating the wildfires.

McGrew talks to Alex Chadwick about the situation.

Homes Spared, Lost in Fires' Random Destruction

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

San Diego authorities say wildfires have destroyed more than 1,700 homes. Scott Horsley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption 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.

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