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Firefighters attempt to control the advance of the Harris Fire, in Jamul, San Diego County early Oct. 24, 2007.
Firefighters attempt to control the advance of the Harris Fire, in Jamul, San Diego County early Oct. 24, 2007.
Robyn Beck - Getty Images

California Fires Continue to Rage

A wildfire burns houses in San Diego County near Rancho Bernardo, Calif. About two-thirds of new building in Southern California over the past decade was on land susceptible to wildfires.
A wildfire burns houses in San Diego County near Rancho Bernardo, Calif. About two-thirds of new building in Southern California over the past decade was on land susceptible to wildfires. (By Chris Carlson -- Associated Press)

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By Karl Vick and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 23 -- Fires raged across Southern California on an epic scale for a third day Tuesday, with flames as high as 100 feet stoked by extremes of wind, heat, dryness and -- on the suburban frontier where some of the worst blazes roared -- the human impulse to live just a little farther out.

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Brush fires still beyond the control of firefighters forced the largest evacuation in modern times, officials estimated. The orders called for vacating 350,000 homes, affecting 950,000 people. In San Diego County alone, where the largest fire more than tripled in size over 24 hours, evacuation orders went to more than half a million people without reports of major hardships.

"It's going very smoothly," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), touring the area with federal officials, who dispatched military cargo planes and helicopters to bolster the fleet dropping fire retardant on the blazes.

President Bush, who was sharply criticized for his sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, declared a federal emergency in seven Southern California counties on Tuesday, a move that will speed disaster relief. He said he will visit the region on Thursday.

From north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border, intense and unpredictable winds kept 6,000 firefighters scrambling not to defeat fires but to push them away from homes. Officials said that 1,300 dwellings were destroyed through midday Tuesday, in a burned area totaling 600 square miles.

The fires also caused a second fatality. An unidentified motorist was caught in flames outside Santa Clarita, a city north of Los Angeles that summons the iconic suburban landscape of Steven Spielberg movies, its rows of almost identical freshly built houses snugged as close as possible against the surrounding tinder-dry hills.

That boundary defined the topography of the unfolding disaster. Two of the four counties -- San Bernardino and Riverside -- burning most fiercely this week are among the fastest-growing in the United States, bedroom communities that push what ecologists call the "urban/wildland interface."

The move into the hills is for homes that are more affordable, but they are also more vulnerable. An inventory by University of Wisconsin researchers found that about two-thirds of new building in Southern California over the past decade was on land susceptible to wildfires, said Mike Davis, a historian at the University of California at Irvine and author of a social history of Los Angeles.

"It gives you some parameters for understanding the current situation," Davis said. "Another way to look at it is you simply drive out the San Gorgonio Pass, where the winds blow over 50 mph over a hundred days a year and you have new houses standing next to 50-year-old chaparral.

"You might as well be building next to leaking gasoline cans."

Some of the areas hit hardest by this week's fires are near Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County. The area is thick with vacation homes, a sore spot for environmentalists who complain that federal taxpayers foot the bill for protecting houses near national forests.

"These smoke jumpers drop out of the sky miraculously to fight the fire for you, so there's incentive for county commissioners and land use departments to withhold the permitting of homes," said Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics. He was reached in Washington, where he was presenting a study showing that 50 to 95 percent of Forest Service firefighting costs went to protect private property.


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