SAN DIEGO – Wildfires blown by fierce desert winds Monday reduced hundreds of Southern California homes to ashes, forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee and laid a hellish, spidery pattern of luminous orange over the drought-stricken region.
At least one person was killed and dozens were injured. At least 655 homes burned – about 130 in one mountain area alone – and 168 businesses and other structures were destroyed. Thousands of other buildings were threatened by more than a dozen blazes covering at least 240,000 acres, the equivalent of 374 square miles.
“The sky was just red. Everywhere I looked was red, glowing. Law enforcement came barreling in with police cars with loudspeakers telling everyone to get out now,” said Ronnie Leigh, 55, who fled her mobile home in northern Los Angeles County.
Soon after nightfall, fire officials announced that 500 homes and 100 commercial properties had been destroyed by a fire in northern San Diego County that exploded to 145,000 acres, said Roxanne Provaznik, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry. The fire injured seven firefighters and one civilian.
A pair of wildfires consumed 133 homes in the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles, authorities said. Hundreds of homes were lost in the same area fours years ago.
Firefighters – who lost valuable time trying to persuade stubborn homeowners to leave – had their work cut out for them as winds gusting to 70 mph scattered embers onto dry brush, spawning spot fires.
“A lot of people are going to lose their homes today,” San Diego Fire Capt. Lisa Blake predicted earlier.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, calling it “a tragic time for California,” declared a state of emergency in seven counties. At least 14 fires were burning in Southern California, said Patti Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
From San Diego to Malibu, more than 150 miles up the coast, at least 265,000 people were warned to leave their homes. More than 250,000 were told to flee in San Diego County alone.
Hundreds of patients were moved by school bus and ambulance from a hospital and nursing homes.
In San Diego County, where at least four fires burned, more than 200,000 reverse 911 calls – calls from officials to residents – alerted residents to evacuations, said County Supervisor Ron Roberts.
About 10,000 of them ended up at Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL’s Chargers, where thousands of people huddled in eerie silence during the day Monday. A lone concession stand served coffee and doughnuts. Many gathered in the parking lot with their pets, which were banned from the stadium.
At least one of the fires, in Orange County, was believed to have been set. And a blaze threatening the homes of the rich and famous in Malibu might have been caused by downed power lines, authorities said. Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer and Victoria Principal were among the celebrities forced to flee over the weekend, their publicists said.