Massive California wildfires burn through the night

SAN DIEGO, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Firefighters hoped for high winds to abate on Tuesday, enabling them to start containing the fast-moving fires that have engulfed a massive swath of Southern California, claimed some 700 homes and sent thousands fleeing.

At least 13 fires, whipped by hot, gale-force Santa Ana winds have swept unchecked over the lower half of the state over the past two days, overwhelming fire crews and state emergency services. Some 200,000 acres (81,000 hectares) were torched, one person killed and more than three dozen injured.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger summoned aid from 1,500 National Guard troops, including 200 from the Mexican border, to help with firefighting, evacuations and crowd control.

Meanwhile, some 250,000 people who had been ordered to evacuate ahead of the flames spent the night out of their homes, about 10,000 of them at a San Diego area football stadium that had been converted to an emergency shelter.

Neighboring states, including Nevada and Arizona, rushed in crews and equipment and President George W. Bush called Schwarzenegger to offer assistance in the worst-hit areas.

In San Diego County south of Los Angeles, some 500 homes and 100 other buildings were reported burned to the ground by the Witch Fire. In the mountain communities of Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs, outside Los Angeles, some 130 homes were destroyed by and fire crews fought to save others in the path of the flames.

"This is a tragic day for San Diego County and for California," Schwarzenegger said. "As you know, 250,000 people have been evacuated."


Some 10,000 people displaced from their homes in the San Diego area spent the night at Qualcomm Stadium, normally home to football's San Diego Chargers football team.

Schwarzenegger said FEMA officials will arrive in San Diego Tuesday morning to start working with those harmed by the fires, as a result of state and local efforts to push through a federal disaster declaration.

"American cities and states have learned from mistakes made in the past. We want to make sure we are prepared and we will be here every step of the way," he said.

Among the 10,000 evacuees were about 300 people evacuated from nursing homes. Volunteers set up tents for families and seniors in the walkways of the stadium.

"There's no word on our house," said Don Parmaley, who was at the stadium with his wife, Rose, "We were able to find a hotel room last night but they had to evacuate the hotel this morning."

Fire officials said that the while the fierce Santa Ana winds that had whipped the flames were expected to abate on Tuesday, humidity would remain low and crews were expected to fight an uphill battle in the parched terrain.

The firestorms closed major state highways, schools and businesses and plumes of thick black smoke drifted across much of southern California, blotting out the sun.

One official said the Witch Fire could prove as devastating as 2003's so-called Cedar Fire that burned 280,000 acres and killed 15 people.

A blaze in the seaside enclave of Malibu that had blackened 2,400 acres (970 hectares) was partly contained, having destroyed 10 buildings including a landmark castle and a church.

Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Marty Graham in San Diego