SAN DIEGO - Wildfires blown by fierce desert winds reduced hundreds of Southern California homes to ashes yesterday, forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee, and laid a hellish, spidery pattern of luminous orange over the drought-stricken region.
At least one person was killed and dozens were injured. At least 655 homes burned - about 130 in one mountain area alone - and 168 businesses and other structures were destroyed. Thousands of other buildings were threatened by more than a dozen blazes covering at least 520 square miles.
"The sky was just red. Everywhere I looked was red, glowing. Law enforcement came barreling in with police cars with loudspeakers telling everyone to get out now," said Ronnie Leigh, 55, who fled her mobile home in northern Los Angeles County as smoke darkened the sky over the nearby ridge line.
Soon after nightfall, fire officials announced that 500 homes and 100 commercial properties had been destroyed by a fire in northern San Diego County that exploded to 145,000 acres, said Roxanne Provaznik, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry. The fire injured seven firefighters and one civilian, and was spreading unchecked.
A pair of wildfires consumed 133 homes in the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles, authorities said.
Firefighters - who lost valuable time trying to persuade stubborn homeowners to leave - had their work cut out for them as winds gusting to 70 miles per hour scattered embers onto dry brush, spawning spot fires. California officials pleaded for help from fire departments in other states.
"A lot of people are going to lose their homes today," San Diego Fire Captain Lisa Blake predicted earlier.
At least 14 fires were burning in Southern California, said Patti Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.
From San Diego to Malibu, more than 150 miles up the coast, at least 265,000 people were warned to leave their homes. More than 250,000 were told to flee in San Diego County alone.
"It's probably closer to 300,000," said County Supervisor Ron Roberts.
Hundreds of patients were moved by school bus and ambulance from a hospital and nursing homes, some in hospital gowns and wheelchairs. Some carried their medical records in clear plastic bags.
A 1,049-inmate jail in Orange County was evacuated because of heavy smoke. The prisoners were bused to other lockups.
In San Diego County, where at least four fires burned, more than 200,000 reverse 911 calls - calls from county officials to residents - alerted residents to evacuations, said County Supervisor Roberts.
About 10,000 of them ended up at
Many evacuees gathered in the parking lot with their pets, which were banned from the stadium.
The sprawling Del Mar Fairgrounds on the coast was also turned into an evacuation center, along with high schools and senior centers. Marine officials at Camp Pendleton opened their base to residents.
At least one of the fires, in Orange County, was believed to have been set. And a blaze threatening the homes of the rich and famous in Malibu might have been caused by downed power lines, authorities said.
Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer, and Victoria Principal were among the celebrities forced to flee over the weekend, their publicists said.
Another blaze was started by a car fire. Flying embers started new fires at every turn. One of the San Diego fires was burning so fast that authorities did not have an accurate count of how many homes had been destroyed.
"It was nuclear winter. It was like Armageddon. It looked like the end of the world," Mitch Mendler, a San Diego firefighter, said as he and his crew stopped at a shopping center parking lot to refill their water truck from a hydrant near a restaurant. Asked how many homes had burned, he said, "I lost count."
Tom Sollie, 49, ignored evacuation orders in Rancho Bernardo to help his neighbors spray roofs on his street with water. His home was untouched, but he watched a neighbor's house reduced to nothing but the remnants of a brick chimney. "The house went up like a Roman candle," Sollie said.
He added: "If we weren't here, the whole neighborhood would go up. There just aren't enough fire trucks around."