CBSN

Calif. Firefighter: This Is A War

Tim Hennigan from the Los Padres hot shot crew, lights a backfire outside Julian, Calif. Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2003, in an effort to head off a wildfire in the area. Since Oct. 21, at least 10 wind-driven wildfires have rampaged through Southern California, demolishing neighborhoods, gutting businesses and blackening more than half a million acres of land from the Mexican border to the Ventura-Los Angeles county line.
AP
Partisan politics has taken a back seat to matters at hand in California.

As outgoing Democratic Gov. Gray Davis manages the disaster of at least ten major wildfires across the state, Republican governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger will be on Capitol Hill Wednesday, meeting with federal disaster officials, asking for help.

Schwarzenegger, who like Davis has seen the fires firsthand, will also attend a series of meetings with congressional leaders and the entire California congressional delegation.

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer says she plans to use her meeting with Schwarzenegger to acquaint him with the urgent requirements of disaster relief. She says the most urgent is creation of "one-stop" service centers where victims can go to receive all the services they need.

The death toll from the fires has risen to at least 15 in California and 2 in Mexico; with 42 injured, not including firefighters; at least 1,600 homes destroyed; and property damage in the billions.

The hot Santa Ana winds that roused California's most destructive wildfires in history were giving way to cooler, more humid conditions Wednesday, but that did little to tame the blazing tide: Instead, forecasts called for Pacific air to push fires in new, dangerous directions.

Southern California's mountains still glowed red as out-of-control fires devoured dying forests, chasing the region's newest refugees into smoky traffic jams as they fled their alpine communities by the tens of thousands.

The towering peaks of the San Bernardino range east of Los Angeles and the mountains of eastern San Diego County became major fronts Tuesday in the long arc of wildfires that have roared over more than 567,000 acres - about 890 square miles, nearly the area of Rhode Island.

In the San Bernardino Mountains, firefighters set backfires along a narrow highway, hoping to burn out fuel needed by the wildfire moving up from below. But the fire still jumped the road in some areas.

"We just pick a line in the sand and try to stop it. Sometimes we have success, sometimes we don't. We just keep trying," said William Bagnell, fire chief in Crestline, a small community high in the San Bernardino Mountains.

The San Bernardino sheriff has released a sketch of one of the two suspects believed to have started the fire, reports CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone.

Fire burning up the south face of the range threatened resort communities from Lake Arrowhead east to Big Bear Lake. Some 80,000 full-time residents had evacuated since the weekend, including thousands who jammed the highway out of Big Bear with bumper-to-bumper traffic Tuesday.

The arrival of fire is feared in the San Bernardino National Forest, which has been blanched as millions of trees have succumbed to drought and a devastating infestation of bark beetles.

Flames also chewed through brush-covered hills above homes in Stevenson Ranch, 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles, where some sections of the community were under a voluntary evacuation.

Changing weather offered both problems and promise. Cool, moist air off the ocean was expected to replace the vanished hot and dry Santa Ana winds that whipped blazes into firestorms over the weekend.

But forecasts called for initial winds that could push fires east instead of south and west, said Brandt Maxwell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego. It will take until Thursday or even Friday, Maxwell said, before the moist winds raise humidity in the bone-dry mountain areas where the fires were fiercest.

In San Diego County, the state's biggest fire is on the outskirts of Julian, a Cuyamaca Mountains town of 3,500 famous for its apple crop. The 210,000-acre Cedar Fire had a 45-mile front and was just miles from merging with a 37,000-acre fire near Escondido.

Fire crews exhausted by three days of battle were pulled back.

"There's really no way to stop this fire from getting up to Julian," said Rich Hawkins, a U.S. Forest Service fire chief. Reinforcements were sent out, but Hawkins said he needed twice as many.

"They're so fatigued that despite the fact the fire perimeter might become much larger, we're not willing to let the firefighters continue any further," he said.

"The resources are coming in as we speak from all over the state and the neighboring states also," Dallas Jones, director of California's emergency services, told the CBS News Early Show. "We have a tremendous amount of federal assets in the state."

CBS Radio News Correspondent Stephan Kaufman reports the entire town of Julian - northeast of San Diego - was evacuated Tuesday night as a ten mile-wide wall of flame advanced towards the area.

Reporting from Highway 78, Kaufman got a look at the fire, which he described as about three miles ahead of him - so fierce it was creating its own wind as it shot flames about a hundred feet into the air.

Ten miles south of Julian, about 90 percent of homes were destroyed in Cuyamaca, a lakeside town of about 160 residents, said Chief Bill Clayton of the California Department of Forestry.

"I'm sad to say the community of Cuyamaca was destroyed," he said.

More than 11,000 firefighters are on the lines of what Gov. Gray Davis said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced. He estimated the cost at $2 billion.

"This is a total disaster," he said.

At least 10 fires have burned in a span from northwest of Los Angeles south to the Mexican border. Some were believed set by arsonists; the Cedar Fire was ignited by a lost hunter's signal fire.

Officials have struggled to accurately tally the damage. Authorities in San Diego revised that county's death total Tuesday from 13 to 12. But Glenn Wagner, San Diego County chief medical examiner, said he expects the death toll to rise as crews inspect hundreds of charred homes.

"This fire was so fast," he said. "I'm sure we're going to find folks who simply never had a chance to get out of their houses."

The number of injured was put at 42, not including firefighters. They include two burn victims in critical condition in San Diego.