(Recasts with evacuation as largest in state history, other
By Dana Ford
SAN DIEGO Oct 23 Fierce wildfires raged across
Southern California on Tuesday, threatening more than 60,000
homes as night fell and forcing half a million people to flee
in the state's largest evacuation.
California's worst fires in four years, driven by hot Santa
Ana winds that have not relented for three days, tormented the
San Diego area in the south and threatened mountain communities
Some 1,500 homes and other structures had been destroyed by
the fires as of Tuesday evening and the 500,000 people
evacuated in their path was the largest in the U.S. since
Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.
"I'm worried for my baby, my house, my kids, everything."
said Ana Ramirez, 30 and pregnant, who was taking shelter at
San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium along with her 4-year-old
Most of the destroyed homes were in the San Diego area,
where four major wildfires burned unchecked and one person was
killed on Sunday. Four other deaths were reported among the
evacuees and more than three dozen people had been injured,
including 18 firefighters.
Firefighters battled flames that shot more than 100 feet
(30 meters) high, as they desperately tried to save homes in
the fires' path.
As the firestorms raged past nightfall, Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger asked President George W. Bush to upgrade
California's wildfires to a "major disaster," which would
trigger federal help.
Bush issued a declaration of emergency early Tuesday. But
Schwarzenegger told him in a new letter that "this disaster is
of such severity and magnitude that effective response is
beyond the capability of the state and local governments."
HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS IN ECONOMIC LOSSES
Schwarzenegger said 68,000 homes, from cabins to luxury
villas, were threatened statewide and 10,000 men and women were
working the fire lines. More than 300,000 acres (120,000
hectares) have been blackened and the state government put
economic losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"We have had three things come together -- very dry areas,
very hot weather and a lot of wind. This makes the perfect
storm for fire," Schwarzenegger said at Lake Arrowhead, where
blazes threatened two nearby mountain communities.
Bush planned to visit the fire-stricken area on Thursday.
Running Springs, a town of about 5,000 people nestled in
the San Bernardino Mountains, was surrounded by fire by Tuesday
afternoon and thousands of homes appeared in danger, but crews
were able to fight back the flames and save most of them.
Firefighters in the Mexican border city of Tecate tried to
control fires that sent up black smoke and covered houses and
cars with gray ash. Fires also burned on the outskirts of the
Mexican city of Tijuana, 20 miles (32 km) from San Diego.
California power authorities issued a transmission
emergency because downed power lines had left San Diego with
only 60 percent of its usual supply of electricity.
The hot Santa Ana winds, which have fanned the flames as
they blow in to Southern California from the desert, continued
to gust up to 65 mph (105 kph) and high wind warnings remained
in effect for most of the region until Wednesday afternoon.
Officials were hoping that easing winds and an accompanying
rise in humidity would help them gain the upper hand against
San Diego officials said people were evacuating quickly. In
the region's last major fire in 2003, 15 people died and 5,000
buildings were destroyed.
Erica Schmidt said friends in San Diego county ignored
evacuation orders to to safeguard their own homes.
"It bothers me to know my friends are still up there
because they can't get out. All the roads are closed," Schmidt
Some 8,000 people, including senior citizens from nursing
homes, went to the Qualcomm stadium, where the San Diego
Chargers football team plays, or to the Del Mar Fairgrounds,
famed for its horse racing track. Thousands of horses and
family pets were also accommodated.
People taking shelter at Qualcomm called it well organized
and clean, in contrast to the chaos at New Orleans' Superdome,
which was used as a refuge after Katrina.
On Tuesday afternoon, some San Diego evacuees were allowed
to return to their communities.
(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Jill Serjeant in
Los Angeles and Marty Graham in San Diego)