Mass Evacuations Ordered As Wildfires Spread in Calif.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007; Page A01
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 22 -- Massive brush fires spread across Southern California on Monday, destroying homes from north of Los Angeles to south of San Diego, leaping freeways and sending hundreds of thousands of residents scrambling to flee their homes sometimes seconds ahead of advancing flames.
Fueled by gale-force desert winds and chaparral turned to tinder by the driest year on record, the conflagrations raged beyond the control of firefighters stretched paper thin rushing across the region from one fast-moving fire to another.
Some 300,000 San Diego residents were ordered out of their homes, making it the country's largest evacuation since hurricanes Katrina and Rita smashed into the Gulf Coast two years ago. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) declared seven counties disaster areas, mobilized the National Guard and asked for aid from neighboring states and the federal government.
But his state fire chief indicated that firefighters held little hope of containing the situation until unusually intense and prolonged Santa Ana winds abated, perhaps on Wednesday.
"With the wind blowing the way it is, it's very hard for us to get ahead of this thing," said Charles Maner, an official with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Officials identified between seven and 15 fires raging at midafternoon, from blazes that skipped down the canyons of Malibu on Sunday to far smaller but more destructive fires consuming hundreds of vacation homes around Lake Arrowhead to the east.
The numbers changed almost hourly as new blazes were called in and smaller fires converged to form larger, more dangerous blazes. By 1:30 p.m. automatic calling machines had dialed 80,000 San Diego residents, urging evacuation in "reverse 911" calls. A hospital, nursing homes and the Wild Animal Park were evacuated, as was the San Diego office of the National Weather Service.
Local television stations broadcast apocalyptic images of orange skies looming behind correspondents who gave their reports wearing surgical masks and ski goggles as protection from the sooty wind.
"You're trying to get stuff out of the house, but you can't leave the door open for one minute because the house will fill up with ash," said Rik Wadge, 47, who had been kept awake by the howling Santa Ana winds when a neighbor called to warn him out of his home in the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood San Diego at 4 a.m.
"I looked out around the corner, and the street was on fire. There was a house going up already. I saw trees burning. It looked like it was snowing. The air was so hot on the lungs you can't hardly breathe.
"I said to my wife, 'We are out of here -- now.' "
The pace and scale of it all alarmed even residents accustomed to the almost-routine hillside blazes during what in Southern California is called "fire season."