LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Fast-moving wildfires roared across California on Monday and engulfed large swaths of San Diego County, where 250,000 people were told to evacuate as state officials called in National Guard troops.
More than a dozen fires, driven by gale-force winds, burned out of control across the drought-stricken southern half of the state, quickly charring about 200,000 acres, killing one person and injuring a number of others.
With fire crews and state emergency services overwhelmed, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said 1,500 National Guard troops had been summoned, including 200 from the Mexican border, to help with firefighting, evacuations and crowd control.
“This is a tragic day for San Diego County and for California,” Schwarzenegger said. “As you know, 250,000 people have been evacuated.”
The fires also closed major state highways, schools and businesses and sent plumes of thick black smoke drifting across much of the state, blotting out the sun.
“We live on a mountain and there is only one way out,” said Janice Edmunds, 47, who fled her San Diego County home. “We could see flames coming over the hills in Escondido at 3:30 in the morning and we started packing.”
Local radio reports said 13 people had been treated at a major San Diego burn center. One person was killed on Sunday by a fire near the Mexican border.
Two fires that merged north of the city of San Diego and scorched 18,000 acres prompted authorities to order 250,000 people evacuated from an area roughly 12 square miles encompassing clusters of upscale communities, ranches and country clubs.
“It has multiple heads in multiple directions,” said spokeswoman Roxanne Provaznik of the state Department of Fire and Forestry.
At least one area hospital was closed by the threat of the so-called Witch Fire, along with several nursing homes.
Southern California is in the midst of its driest year on record after rainfall just a fifth of average levels.
Scores of homes were believed to have been destroyed, but the full extent of damage was not known because dense smoke and high winds limited aerial surveillance.
Gusts of up to 75 mph (121 kph) prevented firefighters from using fixed-wing aircraft to battle the blazes, said state Fire Chief Bill Metcalf.
Authorities designated Qualcomm Stadium, where the San Diego Chargers football team plays, as an evacuation center. The nearby Del Mar Fairgrounds were opened to take in displaced horses and other livestock.
San Diego officials said they were bringing in food and water for up to 10,000 people who could be forced to spend the night in the stadium.
A blaze in the seaside celebrity enclave of Malibu that had blackened 2,400 acres was partially contained, having already destroyed 10 buildings including a landmark castle and a church.
“Our brave state, local and federal firefighters have been battling the blazes for the last 24 hours and they’ve done an extraordinary job,” Schwarzenegger said.
He said President George W. Bush had called to offer help.
Resources were stretched to the limit. Some 10,000 firefighters were on the fire lines and more were pouring in from Northern California. Fire officials said they had asked Nevada for help and would be tapping Arizona as well.
The Santa Ana winds were forecast to gust through the mountain passes and canyons at up to 90 mph (145 kph) on Monday, while temperatures were set to top 90 degrees (32 C).
Additional reporting by Dana Ford in Malibu, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Marty Graham and Ned Randolph in San Diego