Calif. wildfires engulf region


Hundreds of patients were being evacuated today from a hospital and nursing homes in the path of one of more than a dozen wildfires engulfing the region, killing one person, injuring dozens of others and forcing tens of thousands to flee.

Pomerado Hospital and neighboring nursing homes in Poway, a San Diego suburb, were evacuating patients in ambulances and school buses, said Sheriff's spokeswoman Susan Knauss.

About a dozen blazes erupted over the weekend, fueled by strong Santa Ana winds and drought-parched land from the high desert to the Pacific Ocean. Things got worse today, when several new fires sprouted, adding to the 40,000 acres &

or 62 square miles &

that already have burned. Some of the worst damage was in Malibu, where a church, homes and a castle were charred.

In Orange County, a 1,049-inmate jail was being evacuated because of heavy smoke, said sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino. Inmates were being bused from the James A. Musick Facility in Irvine.

All San Diego Police Department officers and off duty detectives were ordered to return to work to help with evacuations and other fire-related emergencies.

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," said Bill Metcalf, chief of the North County Fire Protection District. "And those folks who are making those decisions are actually stripping fire resources."

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.

More than a dozen people have been hospitalized with burns and inhalation damage, including four fighters &

three in critical condition &

at the UC San Diego Medical Center Regional Burn Center, officials said. Some of the injured were hikers, and others may be illegal immigrants.

In San Diego, one fire jumped Interstate 15 into the densely populated Rancho Bernardo neighborhood as authorities ordered thousands of homes to be evacuated. It merged with a smaller fire that broke out near the San Diego Wild Animal Park and moved toward the wealthy suburb of Rancho Santa Fe.

Warm temperatures and strong winds created "dramatically worse" conditions overnight as flames shot 200 feet high, Metcalf said.

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

Twenty-five structures in the suburbs around Santa Clarita were destroyed, Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief Glenn Massey said. That blaze, called the Buckweed Fire, had burned about 25,000 acres.

Senorina De La Torre said smoke from the fire poured through Lilly of the Valley mobile home park in Saugus on 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.

Several new wildfires broke out in San Diego County early today, officials said, and at least seven blazes were active in the county. San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said fire crews were stretched thin and were anxiously awaiting reinforcements from other parts of the state.

"The winds are up, it's very, very dangerous conditions," Kirk said. "Fires are popping up all over the place."

Flames 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.

A wildfire in Orange County that grew to 8,800 acres was believed to be caused by arson, Orange County Fire Authority spokeswoman Lynnette Round said. It was 30 percent contained.

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 with turrets and arched windows.

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.

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 today, several houses in the suburbs around Santa Clarita were destroyed, a fire spokesman 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."


Associated Press writers Chelsea J. Carter and Jeremiah Marquez in Los Angeles and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.

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