Update 12:20 p.m.: 250,000 evacuated as deadly wildfires rage in Southern Cal | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Update 12:20 p.m.: 250,000 evacuated as deadly wildfires rage in Southern Cal

ALLISON HOFFMAN and GILLIAN FLACCUS, Associated Press

SAN DIEGO ” Wildfires fanned by fierce desert winds consumed huge swaths of bone-dry Southern California today, burning buildings and forcing evacuations from Malibu to San Diego, including a jail, a hospital and nursing homes.

More than a dozen wildfires had engulfed the region, killing at least one person, injuring dozens more and threatening scores of structures. Overwhelmed firefighters said they lacked the resources to save many houses.

“We have more houses burning than we have people and engine companies to fight them,” San Diego Fire Captain Lisa Blake said. “A lot of people are going to lose their homes today.”

Nearly 250,000 people were forced to flee in San Diego County alone, where hundreds of patients were being moved by school bus and ambulance from a hospital and nursing homes.

About a dozen blazes erupted over the weekend, feeding on drought-parched land from the high desert to the Pacific Ocean. One person was killed and several injured in a fire near the Mexican border, and dozens of structures have burned across the region.

Warm temperatures and strong winds created “dramatically worse” conditions overnight as flames shot 200 feet high, said Bill Metcalf, chief of the North County Fire Protection District.

The hospital and neighboring nursing homes in Poway, a San Diego suburb, were evacuating patients in ambulances and school buses, sheriff’s spokeswoman Susan Knauss said.

In Orange County, a 1,049-inmate jail was being evacuated because of heavy smoke, sheriff’s spokesman Jim Amormino said. Inmates were being bused to another facility in Irvine.

All San Diego Police Department officers and off duty detectives were ordered to return to work to help with evacuations.

The fires have burned about 100,000 acres, or 156 square miles, in San Diego County, county Supervisor Ron Roberts said. Across the region, 40,000 acres, or 62 square miles, had burned by Sunday; among the structures destroyed in Malibu were a church, homes and a historic castle.

“This is a major emergency,” Roberts said.

In many cases, crews couldn’t begin to fight the fires because they were too busy rescuing residents who refused to leave, fire officials said.

“They didn’t evacuate at all, or delayed until it was too late,” Metcalf said. “And those folks who are making those decisions are actually stripping fire resources.”

More than a dozen people were being treated at the UC San Diego Medical Center Regional Burn Center for burns and smoke inhalation, including four fighters – three in critical condition, officials said. Some of the injured were hikers, and others may be illegal immigrants.

One blaze devoured more than 5,000 acres in northern San Diego County and forced the evacuation of the community of Ramona, which has a population of about 36,000. Several structures were burned on the edge of town and sheriff’s deputies called residents to alert them the fire was approaching the city, San Diego sheriff’s Lt. Phil Brust said.

“The winds are up, it’s very, very dangerous conditions,” San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said. “Fires are popping up all over the place.”

Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL’s Chargers, was added to a growing list of evacuation centers.

The fires were being fueled by stronger than usual Santa Ana winds roaring out of the region’s canyons, scientists said Monday. The powerful, dry winds typically blow between October and February and peak in December.

Typically, Santa Ana conditions last about a day, but the ones that flared up over the weekend were expected to last through Tuesday.

“For it to be this strong for so many days is unusual,” said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

In Saugus, north of Los Angeles, resident Senorina De La Torre said smoke from the fire poured through Lilly of the Valley mobile home park Sunday, prompting police to order her to leave her trailer.

“We couldn’t breathe,” she said.

She rushed to get her passports, bank statements and other important papers before fleeing.

“I haven’t been able to go back to my house since yesterday, so I don’t know if it’s still there or not,” she said.

Associated Press writer Jacob Adelman in Santa Clarita and AP Science Writer Alicia Chang in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

* * *

MALIBU ” Wildfires fanned by fierce desert winds threatened thousands of Southern California homes this morning, as firefighters struggled to combat the blazes that rapidly engulfed the region, killing one and forcing thousands to evacuate.

In many cases, crews couldn’t begin to fight the fires because they were too busy rescuing residents who refused to leave, fire officials told reporters in the San Diego area.

Several new fires sprouted overnight, adding to about a dozen blazes that have already burned 40,000 acres. The fires, which covered swaths of drought-parched land from the high desert to the Pacific Ocean, inflicted some of the worst damage in Malibu, where a church, homes and a castle were charred.

Firefighters acknowledged they were overwhelmed.

“You do not expect something to stretch our resources to this magnitude,” Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Sam Padilla said. “To try and staff something this big, you cannot predict it.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency late Sunday in seven counties. One person died in a fire near San Diego, which burned more than 14,000 acres ” or about 22 square miles ” about 70 miles southeast of San Diego, just north of the Mexican border town of Tecate, California Department of Forestry spokesman Matt Streck said.

Four firefighters and at least 10 other people were hospitalized, Streck said. Some of the injured were hikers, and others may be illegal immigrants.

Another blaze devoured more than 5,000 acres in northern San Diego County and forced the evacuation of the community of Ramona, which has a population of about 36,000.

Several structures were burned on the edge of town and sheriff’s deputies called residents to alert them the fire was approaching the city, said San Diego sheriff’s Lt. Phil Brust.

“The winds are up, it’s very, very dangerous conditions,” San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said. “Fires are popping up all over the place.”

In Malibu, about 700 firefighters worked to protect hundreds of homes in several upscale communities nestled in the hills. About 1,500 people were evacuated and the blaze destroyed a church and several homes, one of them the landmark Castle Kashan, a stately fortress-like home with turrets and arched windows. Chunks of brick fell from the exterior of the burning building overlooking the coast.

No residents or firefighters were injured, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said.

The castle belonged to Lilly Lawrence, the daughter of a former Iranian oil minister. She said she was able to gather a few things before the fire engulfed her home, including some jewelry and memorabilia that included Elvis Presley’s Army fatigues.

She didn’t seem too worried about losing most of her belongings in the fire.

“My parents taught me not to allow my possessions to posses me,” Lawrence told KABC-TV. “So, that’s the story. The house is a house.”

Winds carried embers across the Pacific Coast Highway, closing the popular road and setting fire to cars and trees in the parking lot of a shopping center where a supermarket, drug store and other shops were damaged.

“This fire is zero percent contained, which means we’re at the mercy of the wind,” acting Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich said.

In all, five homes and two commercial buildings had been confirmed lost throughout the Malibu area, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said. Nine more homes were damaged, he said. Early Monday, several houses in the suburbs around Santa Clarita were destroyed, Los Angeles County Sam Padilla said. That blaze had burned about 25,000 acres.

The fire is expected to burn for another two to three days, he said. Until the blaze is extinguished, “there will literally be thousands of homes that will be threatened at one time or another,” he said.

The fire may have been started by downed power lines, Capt. Mike Brown said.

“This is a conflagration we knew was going to come at some point,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said at a Malibu press conference Sunday, noting Southern California’s ongoing dry spell. “We were cruising for a bruising. We are very, very lucky as we stand here tonight that the damage has been as limited as it has been.”

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