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Early Start For Calif. Fires

As acrid smoke from more than 18,000 acres of charred brush curled skyward, California officials feared the earlier-than-usual start of the summer wildfires season could make it the most dangerous ever.

Just months after the most devastating wildfires in state history, reports CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker, thousands of acres from San Diego to Santa Barbara are ablaze. Thousands of firefighters are on the line, and once again residents are fleeing advancing flames.

"I'm hoping they put it out really soon, don't want a disaster like back in November," said evacuee Don Govea.

Fire crews battled three major wildfires that topped 1,000 acres each and more than 1,000 people were ordered to evacuate at the two biggest blazes, both in Riverside County, an inland region east of Los Angeles.

Flames had destroyed more than 30 structures early Wednesday, including more than a dozen homes. Fires also burned in San Diego County and up the coast in Santa Barbara County.

Officials said the season's first wildfires burned with an intensity usually not seen until late summer, portending an especially dangerous and costly summer.

"Fires are supposed to be in August and September, not in May," complained an evacuee.

"Burning conditions are probably about what we'd expect in late June or July," said Rich Green, assistant deputy director of the California Department of Forestry. "It's shaping up to be a very difficult year statewide."

By early Wednesday, fires burned a total of more than 18,675 acres of tinder-dry grass and low-lying scrub. The fire season started Monday, three weeks earlier than last year due to dry weather and a tree-killing bark beetle infestation.

"We've had a very dry winter, we have long-term drought in that area and then combined with hot temperatures and low humidities, that's made the conditions ripe for fire," Rick Ochoa of the National Interagency Fire Center told CBS News.

Fire officials hoped cooler weather and diminished winds in the next few days would help crews gain ground on the blazes. Forecasters said temperatures would be in the 80s for Wednesday and Thursday.

"We're getting a little cool weather, and we're making some headway with bulldozers and handcrews," California Department of Forestry spokesman Steve Rahn said.

The largest blaze spread across 10,500 acres between Corona and Lake Elsinore, prompting more than 1,000 people to be evacuated. Six structures were destroyed and seven firefighters suffered minor injuries.

"I'm a 25-year veteran and I'm seeing conditions like I've never seen before. It's like gasoline burning up there in these mountains," said Capt. Mark Miller.

A man was charged with negligently setting the blaze. Richard Drew Brown was arrested Monday for investigation of two felony counts of "recklessly causing the fire with equipment," fire Capt. Julie Hutchinson said. Witnesses told authorities Brown dragged a large piece of steel behind his vehicle, creating sparks that started several fires in the canyon.

Brown was scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday.

Homeowners John and Suzie Lynch refused to leave their home though flames came within 20 yards. "We are not budging," said 47-year-old John Lynch. "I'm sure this is just one of many fires to come."

Residents Abraham Contreras said firefighters warned on Tuesday that flames from the largest fire were coming toward his home. He said he got in his tractor and cleared debris around his 33-acre property, but the fire burned everything except his and his neighbor's home.

"The fire can't come back — everything's burned," he said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein said 2004 could be one of the worst fire seasons ever, coming on the heels of a record series of wildfires that tore through Southern California last year, killing 22 people and burning 3,600 homes. Feinstein said recreational areas may have to be closed during the peak fire season.

"In areas that are catastrophic prone, they really ought to restrict human use or human travel, to the extent that it can be done," she said.

Feinstein said she was disturbed $120 million allocated for tree removal in San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties had not yet been spent. "This is unacceptable," she said.

A smaller, 5,000-acre fire in Riverside County, 10 miles south of an area that burned last fall, destroyed 25 structures, including 14 homes, officials said. Authorities want to question three motorcycle riders seen in the area of the fire around the time it ignited Sunday.

In San Diego County, firefighters also were battling a blaze that has scorched 1,900 acres near the Camp Pendleton Marine base. No structures were damaged and no injuries were reported.

"We've never been burned this bad before," said Dick Benjamin, 70, whose home in Riverside County was saved. "Fires are supposed to be in August and September, not May."