US President George Bush is planning to visit areas affected by devastating wildfires tomorrow, after declaring a federal emergency for seven counties.
The move will speed up disaster-relief efforts.
Firefighters have conceded defeat on many fronts as winds whip fires into a frenzy across southern California, forcing 500,000 people from their homes.
It is the biggest evacuation in California history, from north of Los Angeles, through San Diego to the Mexican border.
Fire crews said they could do little more than prevent new spot fires until the Santa Ana winds subside – and that is not expected for at least another day.
“These winds are so strong, we’re not trying to fight this fire,” said firefighter Jim Gelrud. “We’re just trying to save the buildings.”
The tentacles of unpredictable, shifting flame have destroyed more than 1,800 homes, burned across nearly 1,554 square kilometres.
Governor 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 dozen-plus wildfires blowing across Southern California since Sunday have injured more than 45 people, including 21 firefighters.
In San Diego County, authorities placed evacuation calls to 346,000 homes, said Luis Monteagudo, a spokesman for the county’s emergency effort.
Based on census and other county data, 560,000 people were ordered to leave, said Ron Roberts, chairman of the San Diego Board of Supervisors.
“The numbers we’re seeing are staggering,” said Luis Monteagudo, a spokesman for the county’s emergency effort.
By last night, some 50,000 people in San Diego were being allowed to return to their homes in neighbourhoods where no homes were lost, Roberts said.
Weather conditions grew worse yesterday, with temperatures above 32 Celsius by mid-afternoon and wind gusts expected at up to 96.5 kph in mountains and canyons.
The one person confirmed dead was identified as Thomas Varshock, who died over the weekend after he ignored warnings to evacuate and authorities left to take care of other evacuations, the San Diego Conty 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.
Fighting a gusty blaze also puts the firefighters in harm’s way. At least twice in the last two days, firefighters have had to unfurl their emergency fire shelters – small fire-resistant tents to shield them when they cannot escape a fire.
“In a lot of places, you just have to back off and let the fire go,” said San Bernardino National Forest Ranger Kurt Winchester. “There’s nothing we can do.”
In the suburbs north of San Diego, firefighters watched fingers of flame pulse across a 10-lane freeway and raced up a hill on the opposite side in just seconds.
The usual firefighting tactic is to surround a fire on two sides and try to choke it off. But with fires whipped by gusts that have surpassed 161 kph, that strategy does not work because embers can be swept miles ahead of the fire’s front line. In those cases, crews must keep up to 9 meters back from the flames or risk their own lives, Los Angeles County firefighter Daryl Parish said.
Added Rocklin Fire Department Capt Martin Holm: “We do what we can. A life’s a lot more important than a house.”
That did not stop some people from trying to protect their homes. In Rancho Santa Fe, neighbours tried to protect a friend’s house with a garden hose on Monday night as flames raced up a ridge directly behind the house.
Yards away, an engine crew watched another home, already fully engulfed, burn to the ground.