CBSN

Deadly Wildfires Rage On

Capt. Mike Clemens, of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, watches flames approaching a residence in Fillmore, Calif., Monday, Oct. 27, 2003. Fire management techniques and changing winds assisted fire personnel in redirecting the blaze away from structures.
AP
Firefighters in Southern California on Tuesday faced another rough day of battling deadly wildfires that have already scorched half a million acres.

At least 1,134 homes had been destroyed and 15 people killed as of Tuesday by five separate blazes scattered around Southern California. Two more people were killed in Mexico.

The flames dotted an area that extended on a 100-mile line from the Mexican border north to the suburbs of Los Angeles.

A handful of other fires that hadn't hit any homes also consumed tens of thousands of acres of brush and forestlands, bringing the total burned to more than 500,000 acres — or about 780 square miles, roughly three-quarters the total area of Rhode Island.

"It's a worst-case scenario. You couldn't have written anything worse than this. You can dream up horror movies, and they wouldn't be this bad," said Gene Zimmerman, supervisor of the San Bernardino National Forest, the area in which two of the most destructive fires began last week.

A blaze in San Bernardino County called the Old Fire, which began near the forest on Saturday, has destroyed at least 450 homes and been blamed for the deaths of two people. It was 10 percent contained Tuesday. The Grand Prix Fire, which was 25 percent contained, has destroyed at least 77 homes since it ignited near the forest on Oct. 21.

Those two fires merged earlier in the week, jumped a highway and were moving as one contiguous wall of flames toward the mountain resort town of Lake Arrowhead. The town, which sits at an elevation of 5,100 feet, was left particularly vulnerable to flames by a beetle infestation that has devastated the surrounding trees.

"It is one of our major concerns at the moment," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Carol Beckley said late Monday.

Officials were particularly concerned about "crowning," in which flames leap from one treetop to another, leaving firefighters on the ground all but powerless to stop them.

"If that occurs we don't have the capability to put those fires out," Beckley said. "It will be a firestorm."

One of the biggest fire fights on Tuesday was unfolding in the Santa Susana Mountains that separate Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, where 1.3 million people live, from Simi Valley in neighboring Ventura County.

The Simi Valley fire, which has destroyed 13 homes since it began Saturday, was burning dangerously close to a gated community of million-dollar mansions in Los Angeles' Chatsworth section. It was only 5 percent contained.

Conditions were equally grim in San Diego County, where ash from three large fires fell on the beaches like snow and drivers had turn on their headlights during the day.

San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman was worried that the fires would merge into one gigantic blaze, pushing already strained resources to the breaking point.

San Diego was facing three separate fires that have consumed roughly 280,000 acres. Officials are worried that the three could eventually merge into a super fire.

"It would be disingenuous to say we have control of these fires. Right now we are throwing everything we can at them," Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, said of the San Diego blazes.

Other fires were burning in San Diego, Los Angeles, Ventura and Riverside counties. More than 10,000 firefighters were battling the flames, which by Tuesday had already cost the state more than $24 million.

"This will be the most expensive fire in California history, both in loss of property and the cost of fighting it," Jones said.

The 15 people killed were the most since the devastating Oakland Hills fire that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes in October 1991. Officials say most the dead ignored orders to evacuate, CBS News Correspondent Jennifer Miller.

Scores of people were also injured by this week's fires, including eight people treated for burns and smoke inhalation at the University of California, San Diego, Medical Center, on Monday. Two were in serious to critical condition with burns over more than 55 percent of their bodies, spokeswoman Eileen Callahan said.

There was some good news overnight, in that the searing Santa Ana winds died down, reports CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan.

But much of the cause of the fire has not been in the air, but on the ground. Although rainfall has been about average this year, the last four years have been deathly dry. Add to that a bark beetle infestation that killed off millions of trees, and it makes for nearly ideal fire conditions.

At San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, which has been turned into a shelter, volunteers were recommending people wear masks because of poor air quality. Over 100 evacuees have been hospitalized from Qualcomm, including children who've had asthma attacks, reports CBS News Correspondent Hattie Kauffman.

The fires also knocked out power to 70,000 people, closed highways, cancelled school and disrupted air travel.

More resources were on the way from Arizona and Nevada, which were answering pleas for help from Gov. Gray Davis.

On Monday, President Bush granted Davis' request to declare the region a disaster area, opening the door to grants, loans and other aid to residents and businesses in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties.

Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, tells the CBS News Early Show that his agency has been offering state and local agencies fire management assistance grants that pay up to 75 percent of the costs of fighting fires. FEMA planned Tuesday to unveil a toll-free number for people to register for aid.

"What I want to focus on is what do these families need and see if we can't get those resources to them," Brown said.