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A population equivalent to a medium-sized city is now on the move in Southern California. As many as half a million people have been told to flee the area's wild fires. More fires broke out overnight and three big fires north of Los Angeles are close to merging. That's just one of the troubled spots. The flames affect seven counties with millions of residents and the worst of the damage right now is in San Diego County, where we begin our coverage with NPR's Carrie Kahn.
CARRIE KAHN: Throughout the night across San Diego County, mass evacuations continued as firefighters struggled to stay ahead of the flames. Wildfires roared into communities stretching from the Mexican border to the county's outlying 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 in Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers.
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KAHN: Soon after opening yesterday, the community center in the city of Poway 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.
Deputy Mayor MERRILEE BOYACK (Poway County, California): Tonight, we have for your dining pleasure chicken barbeque sandwiches, or beef ribs if you hurry.
KAHN: Merrilee Boyack is the vice mayor of Poway.
Deputy Mayor BOYACK: We're called a city in a country. Poway's called the city in a country, and we take care of our own.
KAHN: Poway's beloved countryside, hundreds of acres of parks and open space, dry and brittle from several years of bone-dry weather, provided plenty of fuel for the fire which destroyed at least 60 homes in the city. The destruction was eerily reminiscent of the fire storms 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's not so sure about this one. Instead of worrying, though, Allen found comfort in a quiet corner of the community center, turning his thoughts into poetry.
Mr. HERB ALLEN (Resident): Let's all be thankful for most past favors. Sheriff volunteers are the real saviors. The Poway Center's, a true blessed place. When in need of help, it is no disgrace.
KAHN: 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.
San Diego firefighter, John Gates, wiped his bloodshot eyes. He said crews worked all day to save houses.
Mr. JOHN GATES (San Diego Firefighter): We just did the best we could and picked the houses that we thought we could save - and saved, you know, a lot of them. And at the same time, breaks your heart when, you know, one right next door burns to the ground.
KAHN: San Diego County authorities don't 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 a 350-square-mile area.
Yesterday, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger toured much of the region from the beach community of Malibu to San Diego's Fire Command Center. Schwarzenegger says he spoke with President Bush two times and has been assured that any needed resources to fight the fire will be provided. But the governor says what's needed most only Mother Nature can provide.
Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): I think that what we need is the weather to change. We need rain. We need the wind to stop. And we needed to get wet out there. That's what we need right now.
KAHN: Weather forecasters say that's not about to happen any time soon. Hot, dry, windy conditions are expected to continue today.
Meanwhile, evacuated residents like Paul Chernyshev are waiting to find out if their home survived.
Mr. PAUL CHERNYSHEV (Resident): Watching the fire go up and down the mountain and, you know, absolutely powerless to do anything. That was the worst thing. It's really like out of a horror movie or something. Yeah, absolutely crazy.
KAHN: 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.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Diego.