Fires displace 250,000 near San Diego
October 22, 2007
SAN DIEGO ” Wildfires fanned by fierce desert winds consumed huge swaths of bone-dry Southern California on Monday, burning dozens of buildings and threatening hundreds more from Malibu to San Diego, including a jail, a hospital and nursing homes.
More than a dozen wildfires had engulfed the region, killing at least one person, injuring dozens more and forcing hundreds of thousands of evacuations. Overwhelmed firefighters said they lacked the resources to protect property.
“We have more houses burning than we have people and engine companies to fight them,” San Diego Fire Captain Lisa Blake said. “A lot of people are going to lose their homes today.”
Nearly 250,000 people were forced to flee in San Diego County alone, where hundreds of patients were being moved by school bus and ambulance from a hospital and nursing homes, sheriff’s spokeswoman Susan Knauss said.
About a dozen blazes erupted over the weekend, feeding on drought-parched land from the high desert to the Pacific Ocean. One person was killed and several injured in a fire near the Mexican border, and dozens of structures have burned across the region.
Warm temperatures and strong winds created “dramatically worse” conditions overnight as flames shot 200 feet high, said Bill Metcalf, chief of the North County Fire Protection District.
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In Orange County, a 1,049-inmate jail was being evacuated because of heavy smoke, sheriff’s spokesman Jim Amormino said. Inmates were being bused to another facility in Irvine.
All San Diego Police Department officers and off duty detectives were ordered to return to work to help with evacuations.
The fires have burned about 100,000 acres, or 156 square miles, in San Diego County, said county Supervisor Ron Roberts. Across the region, 40,000 acres, or 62 square miles, had burned by Sunday.
“This is a major emergency,” Roberts said.
In many cases, crews couldn’t begin to fight the fires because they were too busy rescuing residents who refused to leave, fire officials said.
“They didn’t evacuate at all, or delayed until it was too late,” Metcalf said. “And those folks who are making those decisions are actually stripping fire resources.”
Among those who wouldn’t leave was Ken Morris, who stayed at his rural San Diego County home to rescue his horses.
“I heard the cops come by and I just ducked,” he said. “I had a beer and waited it out.”
Christine Baird, 42, was ordered to evacuate her apartment at 5:30 a.m. in San Diego’s densely populated Rancho Bernardo area. She and her husband moved there in February from Ottawa, Canada.
“Instead of snow we had ash all over the car,” she said. “This is all new for me. We’ve got no family in the area, so there’s really nowhere else to go.”
More than a dozen people were being treated at the UC San Diego Medical Center Regional Burn Center for burns and smoke inhalation, including four fighters ” three in critical condition, officials said. Some of the injured were hikers, and others may be illegal immigrants.
One blaze in northern San Diego County and forced the evacuation of the community of Ramona, which has about 36,000 people.
“The winds are up, it’s very, very dangerous conditions,” San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said. “Fires are popping up all over the place.”
Guardsmen assigned to the border were forced to evacuate one of their barracks and troops were aiding evacuations, said Col. David Baldwin, director of operations for the California National Guard.
“The border is still secure, but agents are evacuating the threatened areas and the Guard is supporting that operation,” Baldwin said.
Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL’s Chargers, was added to a growing list of evacuation centers.
In Saugus, north of Los Angeles, about 120 people spent the night on cots in the gymnasium of Saugus High School, principal Bill Bolde said.
Michele Beard fled her home with her husband, mother-in-law and three older children.
“It just lit up the whole mountainside fiery red,” said Beard, 48. “I had never seen anything like that so close before.”
The fires were being fueled by stronger than usual Santa Ana winds roaring out of the region’s canyons, scientists said Monday. The powerful, dry winds typically blow between October and February and peak in December.
Typically, Santa Ana conditions last about a day, but the ones that flared up over the weekend were expected to last through Tuesday.
“For it to be this strong for so many days is unusual,” said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
The fire in Malibu had destroyed or damaged at least 16 structures, among them a church, homes and a historic castle, and was expected to burn for another two to three days, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said. “There will literally be thousands of homes that will be threatened” until the blaze is out, he said.