CBSN

11 Dead In Fiery California

Fire engulfs a home as it sweeps up a canyon in San Diego, Sunday Oct. 26, 2003. Wild fires are burning out of control in numerous areas around the county. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
AP
Wildfires that have burned for days merged into walls of flame stretching across miles in parts of Southern California on Sunday, leaving 11 people dead, burning 500 homes and frustrating overmatched firefighters who worked relentlessly against fierce winds.

The state's largest fire, in eastern San Diego County, caused at least eight deaths, including two 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."

On the streets, CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Sanchez reports, vehicles were engulfed in flames. —

As giant walls of flames climbed canyons, fireballs jumped from home to home. In some neighborhoods, entire blocks were wiped out. Veteran firefighters say it's unlike anything they've ever seen.

"The power, just nature of fire, and the wind conditions in itself, it was amazing," said one firefighter. "It was frightening."

The 100,000-acre fire 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.

Another fire near San Diego that started Sunday killed one man and destroyed 20 homes while burning through about 1,000 acres, Lora Lowes of the California Department of Forestry said.

Fire also forced the evacuation of a Federal Aviation Administration control center in San Diego, disrupting air travel across the nation.

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

In the congested suburbs of San Bernardino, a city of 185,000 about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, one flank of a 50,000-acre fire burned through four towns while the other flank destroyed more than 300 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.

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 47,150-acre fire that threatened 2,000 homes in four communities and closed four highways, sealing off access to two mountain towns, fire spokeswoman Michele Alcorn said.

Firefighters, including 25 strike teams and 125 engines, were making a stand at Crestline in the San Bernardino National Forest, according to U.S. Forest Service fire information officer Stanton Florea.

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.

Brandy DeBatte, 21, stayed at her Crestline home until the electricity went out and the smoke started to thicken.

"I got our animals. I got insurance papers. I didn't want to be up there if the town was going to burn down," she said.

Hours later, she was having second thoughts as she realized how much she had left behind: "I should have gotten more out, and I didn't."

Gov. Gray Davis, who visited the San Bernardino fire on Friday, planned a second trip Sunday to announce that he was extending the state of emergency to Los Angeles and San Diego counties, said his spokesman, Steve Maviglio.

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 Patton State Hospital, home to 1,300 mental patients.

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

About 1,000 people packed the San Bernardino International Airport center. Fifty of those evacuees were elderly people in wheelchairs who were taken from a convalescent home.

Three looters were arrested in San Bernardino, police said.