13 Dead In California Sea Of Fire

ANIMATED: A California Department of Forestry firefighter battles flames from the Old Fire while trying to protect homes in Devore, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 26, 2003. AP

Wildfires that have burned for days merged into walls of flame stretching across miles in parts of Southern California on Sunday, leaving 13 people dead, burning more than 800 homes and frustrating overmatched firefighters who worked relentlessly against fierce winds.

The state's largest fire, in eastern San Diego County, caused at least nine deaths, including two people who died inside their car as they apparently tried to escape the flames, San Diego Sheriff Bill Kolender said.

"We were literally running through fire," said Lisza Pontes, 43, who escaped the fire with her family after the roar of flames woke them at 3:45 a.m. As they drove off, they saw a neighbor's mobile home explode.

"I was grabbing wet towels. Fire was at our feet," Pontes said. "It was blazing over our heads and burning everywhere."

More than 7,000 firefighters fought 10 major fires in Southern California, one large cluster in the San Diego area and another about 100 miles north in mountainous areas north of Los Angeles.

By Sunday night, the fires had blackened 300,000 acres.

The city of San Diego was shut down — school was cancelled, delays continued at airports and the mayor asked business to remain closed. Wildfires have prompted the NFL to move Monday night's Chargers-Dolphins game from Qualcomm Stadium to Sun Devil Stadium, in Tempe, Arizona. Qualcomm Stadium is being used as an evacuation center for fire victims.

Fire also forced the evacuation of a Federal Aviation Administration control center in San Diego, disrupting air travel across the nation. Some airlines canceled flights into the region.

The biggest, at 100,000 acres, started Saturday near the mountain town of Julian when a lost hunter set off a signal fire, authorities said. The hunter was detained and may face charges.

Among those killed were one person whose body was found in a motor home, and three in other vehicles, county sheriff's spokeswoman Susan Knauss said. Three were killed while trying to escape on foot and two were dead on arrival at local hospitals.

About 260 homes were destroyed, San Diego police said.

Another fire near San Diego that started Sunday killed two people and destroyed 57 homes while burning about 15,000 acres, authorities said. It also prompted evacuations in northeastern Escondido.

The flames drew much of their strength from the fierce Santa Ana winds, whose gusts of up to 70 mph moved the fires along.

Around the congested suburbs of San Bernardino, a city of about 200,000 about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, one flank of a merged 76,000-acre fire burned through four towns while the other flank destroyed more than 450 homes.

Two men collapsed and died, one as he was evacuating his canyon home and the other as he watched his house burn, the county coroner said.

Authorities announced they were seeking two men for investigation of arson and possibly murder in connection with the fire, which ravaged foothill neighborhoods of San Bernardino and threatened mountain homes. One man was seen Saturday morning throwing something into roadside brush that caught fire, then he and a companion fled in a van, officials said.

The 30-mile fire in the San Bernardino area was formed when two smaller fires merged, covering the region with thick smoke and ash.

Other fires on the outskirts of Los Angeles County merged to create a 80,000-acre fire burning near suburbs late Sunday northwest of Los Angeles in Ventura County.

Firefighters, including 25 strike teams and 125 engines, tried to make a stand at Crestline in the San Bernardino National Forest, according to U.S. Forest Service fire information officer Stanton Florea. About 25 homes burned in the area.

In the town of Devor, firefighters had to take refuge inside the garage of a house they were trying to save, then fled to a rescue vehicle when the fire grew too close, reports CBS News Early Show National Correspondent Hattie Kauffman.

Firefighters were spread thinly around threatened communities, focusing on saving what homes they could. Winds prevented the air tanker drops of retardant and use of backfires that are key tactics of fire containment.

The area is vulnerable because drought and an infestation of bark beetles have left millions of dead trees.

"If the fire starts to crown, racing from one tree to the next, it will be an extreme situation," Florea said.

Meanwhile, about 250 firefighters were battling a 6,000-acre fire north of Temecula in southern Riverside County that damaged or destroyed at least two homes. Evacuations were ordered for 300 homes near the Lake Skinner Recreation Area, and the blaze was 15 percent contained, CDF spokeswoman Rick Vogt said.

Three looters who tried to take advantage of the San Bernardino evacuations were arrested, police said.

Gov. Gray Davis, who visited the San Bernardino fire on Friday, returned Sunday to announce he was extending the state of emergency to Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

"These are the worst fires that we've faced in California in 10 years," Davis said.

Davis' administration also gave an emergency briefing to Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Some of the evacuations ordered included Indian reservation casinos, California State University, San Bernardino, where fire burned two temporary classrooms and a temporary fitness center, and a state mental hospital.

About 1,100 prison inmates also were evacuated, and at least 200 juvenile wards were evacuated Sunday from two probation camps, said Ken Kondo, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Probation Department spokesman.

The winds were expected to subside Monday before picking up later in the week in the San Bernardino area, National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Balfour said.

"We'll have a 24- to 36-hour window where winds will die down, but the vegetation is so dry and the terrain so steep that the fire will probably take off and go into the mountains then," Balfour said. "It will want to race up the ridges."
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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