CBSN

Thousands Flee Calif. Wildfires

A structure inside the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony is burned to the ground after a wildfire swept through the area near Temecula, Calif., Monday, May 3, 2004.
AP
Thousands of people were evacuated Tuesday as firefighters battled to save homes from a wildfire that grew rapidly during the night, a fire official said. A man was charged with setting the blaze.

The weather appeared to be improving Tuesday, with temperatures in the areas of the largest fires expected to top out in the mid-90s, about 10 degrees cooler than Monday. Forecasters also said the humidity would increase as air moved onshore from the Pacific.

The El Cerrito fire, in suburban Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, had burned across 5,000 acres, up from 1,600 acres late Monday, and was only 15 percent contained. Three outbuildings, two unoccupied mobile homes and an unidentified structure were destroyed.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 homes had been evacuated since midnight because they were threatened by the blaze, said Rick Griggs, an engineer with the California Department of Forestry.

Abraham Contreras said firefighters warned him Monday night that flames were heading toward his home, so he cleared his own firebreak around his 33 acres.

"I went with the tractor and made a circle around the property," said Contreras, adding that the fire burned everything in the area except his and his neighbor's homes. "The fire can't come back; everything's burned."

Late Monday, Richard Drew Brown was arrested and charged with "recklessly causing the fire with equipment," said Andy Spada, a CDF spokesman. No details on the arrest or charges were released.

Also in Riverside County, a 4,000-acre fire south of Temecula destroyed or damaged some structures during the night, Griggs said. Containment was estimated at 10 percent.

The destroyed structures included the Dorland Mountain Colony, a cluster of buildings used as an artists' retreat, said Forestry Capt. Jason Neuman.

The fire was about 10 miles south of an area that burned in last fall's wildfire siege.

"There's a lot of areas out there that haven't burned in many years so there's plenty of fuel to burn," Forestry Capt. Steven Diaz said.

Southern California's 2004 fire season was officially opened Monday with a record temperatures above 100 degrees.

Thousands of firefighters were on the job and nearly a dozen had been treated for heat stroke, dehydration or injuries. At least two people fleeing a fire in the Los Padres National Forest were treated for smoke inhalation and cuts and bruises.

Luann Brown couldn't get home because of one of the fires, and she hasn't been able to reach her husband there.

"I am worried," she told CBS News. "I hope he got out of there, because we're down in a gully-like, and if he got trapped in there, (I don't know how) he'd get out of there."

That fire destroyed several homes, as well as a house and workshop owned by the University of California. It was 30 percent contained early Tuesday and about 1,000 firefighters were on the lines as wind blew the flames at up to 20 mph.

Mike Witham fled his trailer in a truck with his motorcycle and his dog. He said he tried to stop to help other dogs, but flames trapped him along with police officers and firefighters, who waited four hours inside a nearby home as firefighters battled back the blaze.

"I will tell you, I was one scared puppy," said Witham, 57.

Firefighters said they had managed to slow a blaze that charred 1,825 acres near the Camp Pendleton Marine base in San Diego County. It was about 75 percent contained early Tuesday, with no structures damaged and no injuries reported.

Full containment was expected Wednesday, said a Camp Pendleton spokesman, Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin. On Sunday, 80 families were urged to voluntarily leave their homes.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein suggested that recreational areas may have to be closed during the peak fire season. "It's hardship for some, but on the other hand the worst hardship is to have one of these major firestorms in play," Feinstein told KNX-AM.

The start of the fire season was declared three weeks earlier than it was last year because of scant rainfall, high temperatures and a bark beetle infestation that has killed thousands of trees.