SoCal Firefighters: "We Can't Stop It"

A California Department of Forestry helicopter moves in close to wildfire flames to make a water drop over the Del Dios neighborhood of Escondido, Calif. Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
AP Photo/Denis Poroy
It's a fight to the death with what firefighters call "the beast."

And right now "the beast" is winning, reports CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric.

Faced with unrelenting winds whipping wildfires into a frenzy across Southern California, firefighters all but conceded defeat Tuesday to an unstoppable force that has chased more than 500,000 people from their homes.

Unless the shrieking Santa Ana winds subside, and that's not expected for at least another day, fire crews say they can do little more than try to wait it out and react -- tamping out spot fires and chasing ribbons of airborne embers to keep new fires from flaring.

"If it's this big and blowing with as much wind as it's got, it'll go all the way to the ocean before it stops," said San Diego Fire Capt. Kirk Humphries. "We can save some stuff but we can't stop it."

Smaller fires are merging to form giant infernos, creating pillars of smoke that can be seen from space, reports Couric.

Tentacles of unpredictable, shifting flame have burned across nearly 600 square miles, killing two people, destroying more than 1,600 homes and prompting the biggest evacuation in California history, from north of Los Angeles, through San Diego to the Mexican border.

Triple digit heat is pushing the 6,000 firefighters to their limits. Some of these men and women have been at it now for 36 hours straight, as modified airliners skim the hilltops to drop mile-long lines of flame-retardant chemicals, reports Couric.

"When they drop retardant, when they drop water, it's literally turning to mist," because the winds are so strong it dissipates, said Matt Streck of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The 70-mile-per-hour Santa Ana winds make it nearly impossible to predict where the fire will go next. Just as crews prepare to make a stand, they get outflanked by embers that hop the lines and explode into new fires.

"You won't see a Santa Ana fire come down on you until it's too late," said Streck.

President Bush, whose administration was criticized for its handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, declared a federal emergency for seven counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts. He also planned a visit to the region Thursday, and the Pentagon said it has sent troops and equipment.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the flames were threatening 68,000 more homes.

"We have had an unfortunate situation that we've had three things come together: very dry areas, very hot weather and then a lot of wind," Schwarzenegger said. "And so this makes the perfect storm for a fire."

The fires also affected some of California's celebrity residents, threatening the oceanfront town of Malibu where many stars like Mel Gibson, Cher, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Aniston, Mel Brooks, Ryan O'Neal and others have homes.

In Rancho Santa Fe, a suburb north of San Diego, houses burned just yards from where fire crews fought to contain flames engulfing other properties. In the mountain community of Lake Arrowhead, cabins and vacation homes went up in flames with no fire crews in sight.

More than a dozen wildfires blowing across Southern California since Sunday have also injured more than 45 people, including 21 firefighters.

Los Angeles County's Santa Clarita residents fought all night to save their homes, reports CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker.

"It was my home for 40 years and now it's gone," said one resident.

The U.S. Forest Service earlier reported a fire death in Santa Clarita, but officials said Tuesday that information was erroneous. The one confirmed death occurred over the weekend, authorities said, and the person has been identified as Thomas Varshock, who died after he ignored warnings to evacuate and authorities left to take care of other evacuations, the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office said.

Besides Varshock, the San Diego medical examiner's officer listed four deaths as connected to the wildfires. Three were people in their 90s who died from natural causes; the fourth was a woman who died after falling at a restaurant.

All are considered fire-connected deaths because they occurred during or after evacuations.

A dozen firefighters battling blazes in Orange County had to deploy emergency shelters, a last resort when they are surrounded by flames.

Orange County's fire chief angrily declared it didn't have to happen, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

"It's an absolute fact that had we more air resources we would have been able to control this fire," said Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather.