An epic wave of fast-moving wildfires engulfed a massive swath of southern California on Monday, destroying hundreds of homes as more than 250 000 people were told to evacuate from neighbourhoods, schools and hospitals.
At least 13 fires, whipped by dry, gale-force Santa Ana winds blowing unchecked over the lower half of the state, torching 81 000 hectares, killing one person and injuring more than 30 others.
With fire crews and state emergency services overwhelmed, Governor 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.
Neighbouring states, including Nevada and Arizona, rushed in crews and equipment and President George Bush called Schwarzenegger to offer assistance in the worst-hit areas.
”This is a tragic day for San Diego County and for California,” Schwarzenegger said. ”As you know, 250 000 people have been evacuated.”
Officials readied a professional football stadium and a huge fairgrounds as shelters for thousands of evacuees by supplying them with food and water.
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.
”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 San Diego burn centre. One person was killed on Sunday by a fire near the Mexican border.
‘It has multiple heads’
Two fires that merged north of the city of San Diego and scorched 7 280 hectares prompted authorities to order 250 000 people evacuated from an area roughly 31 square kilometres encompassing clusters of upscale communities, ranches and country clubs.
The fire ”has multiple heads in multiple directions,” Department of Fire and Forestry spokesperson Roxanne Provaznik said.
At least one hospital and a jail north of San Diego were closed by the threat of one of the fires, the so-called Witch Fire.
Earlier in the day, gusts of up to 121km/h prevented firefighters from using fixed-wing aircraft to battle the blazes, said state Fire Chief Bill Metcalf.
Authorities readied Qualcomm Stadium, where the San Diego Chargers football team plays, as an evacuation centre by trucking in food and water for up to 10 000 people who could be forced to spend the night in the stadium.
The fire forced the Chargers to relocate this week’s practice sessions to the Arizona Cardinals’ facility in Tempe, Arizona, the Chargers said on their website.
The blazes began during a seasonal blast of Southern California’s legendary Santa Ana winds, which blow westward from the desert across dead and bone-dry mountains and foothills in one of California’s driest years.
One official said the Witch Fire could prove as devastating as 2003’s so-called Cedar Fire that burned 113 000 hectares and killed 15 people.
The Del Mar Fairgrounds on the Pacific Coast were opened as an evacuation centre for horses, people and household pets. By midday, all 1 910 stalls at the grounds were filled with horses and owners were bunking down in jockeys quarters at the adjacent race track.
About 2 000 human evacuees were taken in overall, about half of them elderly residents of surrounding nursing homes forced to close.
Meanwhile farther north, at least 130 homes were burned to the ground in the neighbouring communities of Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs, outside Los Angeles, where fire crews directed their most intense efforts late on Monday.
A blaze in the seaside enclave of Malibu that had blackened 970 hectares was partly contained, having 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. – Reuters