SAN DIEGO (AP) – Tens of thousands of people fled the San Bernadino mountains yesterday to escape raging wildfires, causing a traffic jam on a narrow mountain highway, and frustrated firefighters said there was little they could do to stop the flames.
About 80,000 full-time residents have been evacuated from the mountains since Saturday, and the situation got worse yesterday.
“Just about everything is burning,” said William Bagnell, fire chief of the Crest Forest Fire Protection District.
Authorities announced two more deaths in San Bernadino County on yesterday, bringing the death toll to 17 in California’s deadliest wildfires in more than a decade. Ten thousand firefighters were on the front lines throughout the state, and Gov. Gray Davis estimated the cost at nearly $2 billion.
“This is a total disaster,” Davis said. “It reminds me of when I was in Vietnam, communities were burned out.”
Since Oct. 21, at least 10 wind-driven wildfires – many of them arson-caused – have rampaged through Southern California, demolishing neighborhoods, gutting businesses and blackening more than half a million acres of land from the Mexican border to the Ventura-Los Angeles county line.
Nearly 1,600 homes have been destroyed. Two burn victims were in critical condition in San Diego.
In San Diego County, exhausted crews were pulled back even though two devastating blazes began merging. A blaze of more than 200,000 acres formed a 45-mile front stretching into Scripps Ranch and Julian. The fire was just miles from joining with 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 U.S. 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. The state forestry department issued Sergio Martinez, 33, a misdemeanor citation for setting an unauthorized fire.
To the north, firefighters had feared they would lose hundreds of homes late Monday and early yesterday as a fire in the hills between Los Angeles and Ventura counties threatened to push into neighborhoods in the densely populated San Fernando Valley, including one gated community of million-dollar mansions.
But winds subsided enough to let pilots douse the area with water and fire retardant. Backfires and bulldozers cleared away the fuel in the flames’ path. Reinforcements were sent to help on the ground, and temperatures dropped.
“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.
“If that occurs, we don’t have the capability to put those fires out,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Carol Beckley said. “It will be a firestorm.”
On the highway near Julian, high walls of flames lit up a mountain ridge along Lake Cuyamaca. The blaze sounded like an explosion as flames tore across the dry brush and trees.
Glenn Wagner, San Diego County chief medical examiner, said he expects the death toll to rise 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.”
Some victims died within view of San Vicente Lake, a boating and fishing destination in Ramona. “Could you imagine looking out at all that water in San Vicente Lake and still dying in the fire?” Wagner said.