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More than 500,000 flee as California fires rage for third day

by Staff Writers
Los Angeles (AFP) Oct 23, 2007
More than half a million people across California were ordered to evacuate Tuesday as wildfires raged for a third day, destroying nearly 1,300 buildings and threatening to overwhelm firefighters.

Wind-driven infernos have so far scorched at least 166,000 hectares (412,000 acres) of tinder-dry forest and brush, making the blaze one of the worst wildfire crises in Californian history.

One person has died and more than 20 people have been injured in at least 16 separate fires that have erupted since Sunday and spread quickly across the region, fanned by powerful seasonal winds gusting in from the desert.

State officials said in a conference call late Tuesday 1,285 homes and outbuildings had been destroyed in the fires.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger requested that President George W. Bush declare California a federal disaster zone as a White House spokeswoman confirmed Bush would visit the state on Thursday.

"We send our prayers and thoughts with those who've been affected, and we send the help of the federal government, as well," Bush said during a speech earlier on Tuesday.

Many parts of California have experienced record low rainfalls and record-high temperatures this year, leaving vast swathes of rugged countryside bordering built-up residential areas at the mercy of fires.

Around 8,000 firefighters backed by a squadron of 90 firefighting aircraft, including a DC-10, 25 air tankers and 40 helicopters were battling the flames. The firefighters include 2,600 prison inmates trained to tackle fires.

"These fires are causing terrible and tragic devastation in our state, but we are responding and we will not stop until everyone is safe," Schwarzenegger said after touring scenes of destruction at the mountain resort town of Lake Arrowhead, 150 kilometers (100 miles) east of Los Angeles.

"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."

Chip Prather, the fire chief of Orange County, said the number of fires had stretched resources to breaking point.

"The bottom line is there is not enough air assets, not enough helicopters, not enough air tankers," he said. "There are not enough resources to go round."

A forestry official said the seasonal Santa Ana winds were making the fire impossible to contain at blazes raging near Lake Arrowhead.

"The problem with this one has been the winds," US Forest Service spokeswoman Robin Prince said. "It's just moved the fire so rapidly that the fire crews can't keep up with it."

In San Diego County, ground zero of the firestorm, evacuees were sent to Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers American football team. Several thousand evacuees were huddled inside the stadium grounds.

Cindy Alexander, a 54-year-old woman living on disability benefit, was struggling to maintain her spirits after spending the night curled up in the back seat of her son and daughter-in-law's car.

"We've had a hard life," said Alexander, whose home in Ramona had burned to the ground. "It's like 'Okay God -- what else ?'"

San Diego County officials said approximately 513,000 people in the district had received mandatory evacuation orders and an additional 12,000 people had been advised to leave their homes.

A statement said a total of 349,915 households had received calls asking them to evacuate.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said the speedy evacuations of vast numbers of residents had helped keep casualties to a minimum.

"If there's a statistic that so far stands out, it's the fact that we have had minimal loss of life," Sanders said, adding that at least 300,000 people had been confirmed evacuated.

San Diego district attorneys meanwhile warned that anyone caught looting during the fires would be aggressively prosecuted following the arrest of two people in Ramona.

The causes of the different fires raging throughout the state varied, with a fallen power line believed to be the cause of a blaze in Malibu and arson blamed for a fire in Orange County that torched 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres).

The firestorm is the worst to hit California since 2003, when 22 people were killed and more than 3,000 homes destroyed.

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More than 500,000 flee as California fires rage for third day
Los Angeles (AFP) Oct 23, 2007
More than half a million people were ordered to evacuate across California on Tuesday as wildfires raged for a third day, razing over 1,000 homes and threatening to overwhelm weary firefighters.

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