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Over 500,000 Evacuated as Winds Feed California Fires

October 23, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour Correspondent: There was little relief for firefighters and homeowners today, as lines of fire advanced across Southern California, destroying more than 1,000 homes, most in the San Diego area. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes.

FIREFIGHTER: We’re in what we call the perfect storm of fire conditions.

JEFFREY KAYE: About a dozen fires are burning from north of Los Angeles down to the Mexican border, scorching nearly 600 square miles, an area larger than New York City. The fires are whipped by dry, erratic Santa Ana winds.

RON ROBERTS, Chair, San Diego County Board of Supervisors: We are entering day three of what appears to be one of the worse fires, probably the worst fire in San Diego County history, and easily one of the worst fires in the history of the state of California.

JEFFREY KAYE: By this afternoon, two people had died in the California fires. More than 45 people have been injured, 18 of them firefighters. To encourage evacuations, officials have gone door to door and placed calls to residents in endangered communities.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA RESIDENT: I just put water in the truck, the kids in the truck, the dogs in the truck, and I just left everything else. I just looked around and I thought, “None of this is very important. I got what’s important.”

JEFFREY KAYE: Thousands of San Diego’s evacuees headed to Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers football team.

SANDRA PIKE, Southern California Resident: You feel very confident nobody’s breaking into the cars, nobody’s, you know, bothering anyone. Everybody has a smile, and everybody’s trying to help.

JEFFREY KAYE: Many camped out in the corridors around the field. Outside the stadium, volunteers offered evacuees an assortment of food and clothing.

PHILLIPE JEAN LOUIS, Southern California Resident: I’ve been here all morning, since about 12:00, between 12:00 and 1:00, been here just unloading the truck and food over here, myself and a couple of other volunteers just trying to make it happen for everybody else who’s in need right now.

JEFFREY KAYE: Where does this stuff come from?

PHILLIPE JEAN LOUIS: You have a lot of stuff coming from Ralph’s. You have stuff coming from Wal-Mart, Vons. I mean, a lot of people bringing in their own personal stuff that they have saved up, canned foods, and other foods they have saved up at home. So you have a lot of volunteers donating stuff.

JEFFREY KAYE: With communities throughout the San Diego area under mandatory evacuation orders, the Qualcomm Stadium was just one of the places people came to for refuge.

Last night in the community of Poway, north of San Diego, many found safety in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Since this part of the county mixes suburbia with rural living, some came with their horses and livestock.

How many horses do you have?

DWIGHT KRAICH, Southern California Resident: It’s just the one. This is my daughter’s. She’s in Australia, and it’s the only thing she wanted me to save.

JEFFREY KAYE: And did you save anything else?

DWIGHT KRAICH: Doesn’t matter. I’ve got me and the horse and my wife, and that’s all I care.

JEFFREY KAYE: At another evacuation site in the town’s community center, some residents were philosophical, given their experience with past wildfires. Kameron Wong lost a home in the region’s last major blaze in 2003.

KAMERON WONG, Southern California Resident: We lost a house in Julian, and that’s the second house, but that house was totally burned down. So this is the second time.

JEFFREY KAYE: So what must go through your mind going through this a second time?

KAMERON WONG: Well, we kind of, you say, oh, that’s probably life. I mean, what can you do about it?

JEFFREY KAYE: With so many people gone, many San Diego-area neighborhoods and business districts look like ghost towns. Meanwhile to the north, smaller fires merged into a larger one, and at least 160 homes were destroyed in the mountain community of Lake Arrowhead east of Los Angeles.

FIREFIGHTER: The backfires are just trying to burn off some of that fuel so the fire doesn’t get to the structures.

JEFFREY KAYE: Hundreds more homes and businesses from the mountains to the shores of Malibu were burned to the ground. Aircraft loaded water from area reservoirs and doused flames. There was also new visual evidence on just how fast the fire spread. NASA released two photos taken Sunday, the day the fires started, one just after the first blaze began, the other three hours later.

Weary firefighters in Southern California are stretched to the limits, and relief is on the way.

DEP. CHIEF STEVE HEIL, Cal Fire, San Diego: There’s a huge demand for resources. And the Harris fire still has outstanding resource orders for additional fire engines, hand crews, bulldozers, and aircraft.

JEFFREY KAYE: Crews are arriving from surrounding states, including Washington and Nevada. Some Air National Guard troops from North Carolina are also en route. About 1,500 National Guard personnel, including 200 diverted from the Mexican border, have come in to provide logistical support and security.

GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: It’s the largest ever evacuations that we’ve ever had in California.

JEFFREY KAYE: Federal aid is on its way, as Homeland Security Department officials departed for the region this morning.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, Homeland Security Secretary: We have been moving cots, blankets, other supplies into the area of San Diego so that we can handle any necessity for additional sheltering capacity. We’ve also moved air assets to be poised to take flight when we do have the opportunity to deal with the fire, once the winds begin to die down. And we’re going to continue to move supplies and assistance in the area.

JEFFREY KAYE: The National Weather Service reported those strong winds and high temperatures won’t subside until tomorrow evening.

Mixed progress on fires

Ron Roberts
San Diego County Board of Supervisors
I think as they've seen the scenes of the destruction and realize how incredibly dangerous it is, the more recently people seem to be taking our advice, and more than advice. It's really mandatory that they leave. They've been doing that.

JIM LEHRER: And now to Jeffery Brown. He spoke a short while ago with Ron Roberts, chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. They talked by phone because high winds knocked out the video connection.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Roberts, where do things stand as we speak? Are you seeing any signs of progress in containing the fires?

RON ROBERTS, Chair, San Diego County Board of Supervisors: Well, it's kind of a mix right now. And because we have several different fires, we've got distinctly different conditions in the different geographic areas.

In one case, very positive news, we've been able to return in three separate communities residents who had been evacuated. We've been able to return them to their homes.

Having said that, we still have probably close to 500,000 residents who can't return to their homes. And we have another fire that broke out today, started earlier today, and has already burned over 200 acres, which is going very, very fast. So it's really a mixed bag, and I can't give you one simple answer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit more about the evacuation process. Are you getting the cooperation you need from people? Is it all going at the pace that you need?

RON ROBERTS: Yes, absolutely. Initially, we were a little concerned, and I think some of the residents were feeling, well, you know, that was the call that they received, was perhaps just a precautionary thing. We had some who were kind of unwilling to leave their homes.

But I think as they've seen the scenes of the destruction and realize how incredibly dangerous it is, the more recently people seem to be taking our advice, and more than advice. It's really mandatory that they leave. They've been doing that.

I've been in some of the fire areas. And we're getting the people out relatively quickly. And I think that's part of the reason why we're seeing in this instance far fewer injuries and fatalities.

A very unpredictable fire

Ron Roberts
San Diego Board of Supervisors
The disruption is county-wide. The transportation systems have been affected. Our major freeways, one or another, have I think at some point in the day, each of them has been closed for some period.

JEFFREY BROWN: You said some people have been able to go back today. Those people that have evacuated, are you able to get information to them about the state of their homes, about when they might be able to go back?

RON ROBERTS: We're in some cases able to get the information that they know within their neighborhoods, and specifically which homes have been destroyed, but we're not in most cases able to tell them when they might be able to go back. We're fighting a very unpredictable fire. It's based largely on weather conditions. It's driven by some extreme winds at this point, and the predictions are very difficult because of that reason.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give us a sense of the larger disruption to the entire area, I mean, even beyond those evacuated. It is a city and county essentially shut down, in terms of schools, businesses and normal life?

RON ROBERTS: In many respects, the answer is yes. The schools were closed yesterday. They have now -- I just talked to a member of the Board of Education for the county of San Diego, and a decision has been made by all 43 school districts that the schools will remain closed until Monday of next week. We've never had, to my knowledge, this happen in San Diego County.

Many of the businesses have been not necessarily closed, but a lot of their key employees have been unavailable to work for a number of reasons, not the least of which is they've been in the process of evacuating their families.

So the disruption is county-wide. The transportation systems have been affected. Our major freeways, one or another, have I think at some point in the day, each of them has been closed for some period. And in some cases, those have been in the major commute times, which has raised major, major issues, with respect to getting home or getting to work.

Keeping freeways, phone lines open

Ron Roberts
San Diego Board of Supervisors
We've lost because of the fires a number of other transmission and distribution lines. And we're in somewhat of an emergency with respect to electrical power.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I wanted to ask you about the highways. I know you've been appealing to people to stay home if they can to keep the freeways clear for emergencies. I know you've been asking people not to use their cell phones to keep communication lines open. How's that effort going?

RON ROBERTS: You know, so far, it seems to be working. The cell phone system -- while there will be an occasionally delay, it seems to be operating in a pretty normal fashion today. And that's ever since we started asking.

The freeways, when we've been able to avoid the outright closures, seem to be operating within respectable limits. We have an added complication in that we've lost one of our transmission lines. We basically have two paths to bring electricity into San Diego County. These are major systems. One of those is out.

We've lost because of the fires a number of other transmission and distribution lines. And we're in somewhat of an emergency with respect to electrical power. And we've asked the residents to please do everything possible to diminish their use of electricity today. We're hopeful that the situation will change tomorrow.

Coordination of federal, state

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about aid and coordination and cooperation from the state and the federal governments? Are you getting what you need now?

RON ROBERTS: Yes. The state government has been very good in a number of different ways, in providing fire resources, firefighting resources. The governor has been here pretty much for the past two days and has made it very clear if I or the mayor of San Diego or anybody else has something that we really need, let him know personally, and they'll do everything possible to do that. And what we've seen is that that is happening.

The federal folks will be in here later today, and we're hopeful that we're going to go over a number of things that are of concern with them, and we're hopeful that they'll be able to follow through. They've indicated to us that they definitely want to help.

The president called while we were at a meeting with the governor yesterday, indicated his willingness to do everything possible, and we have a number of individuals coming in today really to implement those programs.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Ron Roberts of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, thanks very much, and good luck.

RON ROBERTS: Thank you. Bye now.