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A million flee

California | Fires stretching through seven Southern California counties remained out of control on Oct. 24, forcing nearly a million people to flee their homes

SAN DIEGO-Fires stretching through seven Southern California counties remained out of control on Oct. 24, forcing nearly a million people to flee their homes. More than 20 fires have destroyed 400,000-plus acres, from the Mexican border to Malibu, and inland into the San Bernardino Mountains and the resort area of Lake Arrowhead. One person died in San Diego, and the fires have injured about three dozen firefighters.

Three San Diego blazes account for nearly three-quarters of the total acreage burned. Together, the Witch Creek, Harris, and Rice fires have destroyed about 2,000 structures, including nearly 1,000 homes.

Gabriel Stewart, 52, wasn't sure whether his home burned. Stewart took temporary shelter at Qualcomm Stadium after officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of the northern suburb of Rancho Bernardo. The force of the Santa Ana winds that whipped through Stewart's neighborhood shocked him.

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"I have never seen wind like that," he said. "It would bend the trees then die down. When it resumed, it didn't slap you -- it punched you."

Breezes in San Diego normally blow in from the sea, accounting in part for the area's famously mild weather. But autumn months bring the 180-degree wind shift known as a "Santa Ana condition," in which bone-dry desert winds barrel in from the east, leeching the humidity from the air. By then, San Diego's generally rainless summers have dried the area's landscape into a tinderbox. Any spark can cause disaster.

Humidity in San Diego County on Oct. 23 ranged from the single digits to the teens, with continuing dry conditions working against firefighters. Also, the wind direction has grown erratic, with some westerly breezes now pushing formerly ocean-bound fires back to the east.

President Bush yesterday declared a federal emergency, dispatching 1,200 federal firefighters, 100 engines, and 1600 National Guard personnel to the area. About two dozen military aircraft also are headed to California to help fight the blazes. The Air Force is sending radar-equipped Air Force drone aircraft to more accurately map the fires.

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