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Southern California burns as 500,000 flee homes

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Towering wildfires burned out of control across Southern California for a third day on Tuesday as 500,000 people fled the San Diego area and firefighters made a desperate stand to save a mountain town ringed by flames.

More than a dozen fires blazed from the horse country north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border 150 miles south, torching more than 1,500 houses and other buildings, blotting out the sun with smoke and raining ash on the streets.

Most of the destroyed homes were in the southern end of the state near San Diego, where three major wildfires burned unchecked and half a million people were ordered to evacuate to beat the flames, some 8,000 taking refuge in a football stadium.

Two deaths have been reported and more than three dozen had been injured, including 18 firefighters.

As the firestorms raged, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said 6,800 homes were threatened statewide and 6,000 men and women were manning the fire lines, sometimes hunkering down in fire shelters when shifting winds trapped them.

“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.

Both Schwarzenegger and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders put the number of evacuees at half a million.

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President George W. Bush declared a state of emergency for much of California and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief. 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 as crews made a furious effort to save several thousand homes.

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 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.

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Sanders told people to “stay at home, stay off the freeways” so fire crews and evacuees could keep moving as the winds changed course. All San Diego schools and many businesses were closed for the week.

Officials were hoping that easing winds and an accompanying rise in humidity would help them gain the upper hand against the wildfires.

But on Tuesday afternoon a new, 1,000-acre (405-hectare) fire had erupted at Camp Pendleton, one of the largest Marine bases in the United States and home to 60,000 people. The flames were within seven miles of Southern California Edison’s oceanside San Onofre nuclear power plant.

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So far, the fire “does not pose a threat or danger to our facility, our employees or the ability to operate the plant,” Edison spokesman Gil Alexander said.

More than 300,000 acres have been blackened, an area about twice the size of Chicago, stretching fire crews and state emergency services to their limits.

San Diego officials said people were cooperating and evacuating quickly, resulting in minimal loss of life. In the region’s last major fire in 2003, 15 people died and 5,000 buildings were destroyed.

But Erica Schmidt said friends in San Diego county ignored evacuation orders 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 who sought shelter at Qualcomm said the operation was well organized and clean, in contrast to the chaos at New Orleans’ Superdome, which was used as a refuge after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

On Tuesday afternoon, some San Diego evacuees were allowed to return to their communities.

The state insurance commissioner, Steve Poizner, said the fires have likely caused several hundred million dollars worth of damage to homes and businesses.

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