Tens of thousands of people fled mountain communities in southern California as frantic residents raced to avoid the state’s deadliest wildfires in more than a decade.
Frustrated firefighters said there was little they could do to stop the flames, and exhausted crews in San Diego County were pulled back yesterday even though two devastating blazes began merging into a super fire near Julian, a mountain town of 3,500 known for its apple crop.
To the north, about 80,000 full-time residents have been evacuated from the San Bernardino mountains since Saturday. Tens of thousands fled yesterday alone.
“Just about everything is burning,” said William Bagnell, fire chief of the Crest Forest Fire Protection District.
Authorities announced two more deaths in San Bernardino County yesterday, bringing the death toll from the fires to 17. Nearly 1,600 homes have been destroyed, and 10,000 firefighters were on the front lines throughout the state.
“This is a total disaster,” Governor Gray Davis said. “It reminds me of when I was in Vietnam; communities were burned out.”
Since October 21, at least 10 wind-driven wildfires – many of them arson-caused – have rampaged through southern California, demolishing neighbourhoods, gutting businesses and blackening more than half a million acres of land from the Mexican border to the Ventura-Los Angeles county line.
Just west of Julian, dozens of fire crews tried to protect homes from flames eating through brush, pine and oak.
“This is some of the most stressful firefighting I’ve done,” said US Forest Service firefighter Damien Sanchez, a seven-year veteran.
In San Diego County, a blaze of more than 200,000 acres formed a 45-mile front just miles from a 37,000-acre fire near Escondido.
The two fires have destroyed more than 900 homes. If they join up, the flames would cut off escape routes and whip up the wind.
Reinforcements were sent out, but Rich Hawkins, a US Forest Service fire chief, said he needed twice as many firefighters.
“They’re so fatigued that despite the fact the fire perimeter might become much larger, we’re not willing to let the firefighters continue any further,” he said. ”They are too fatigued from three days of battle.”
Authorities believe the largest, nicknamed the Cedar Fire, was set by a lost hunter trying to signal rescuers.
To the north, firefighters had feared they would lose hundreds of homes late on Monday and early yesterday as a fire in the hills between Los Angeles and Ventura counties threatened to push into neighbourhoods in the densely populated San Fernando Valley, including one community of million-dollar mansions.
But winds subsided enough to let pilots douse the area with water and fire retardant.
“They saved every one of them,” said Bill Peters, a spokesman for the California Forestry Department.
The flames are feeding on millions of dead trees, weakened by drought and killed by a bark beetle infestation. Officials were particularly worried about “crowning”, where flames leap from one treetop to another, leaving firefighters on the ground all but powerless to stop them.
Glenn Wagner, San Diego County chief medical examiner, said he expected the death toll to rise even more as crews begin inspecting the hundreds of charred homes.
“This fire was so fast,” he said. “I’m sure we’re going to find folks who simply never had a chance to get out of their houses.”