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California wildfires leave 14 dead, 650 homes burned
( 2003-10-27 10:11) (Agencies)

Wildfires that have burned for days merged into walls of flame stretching across miles in parts of Southern California on Sunday, leaving 14 people dead, burning 650 homes and frustrating overmatched firefighters who worked relentlessly against fierce winds.

Major fires had burned 264,000 acres by Sunday night.

The state's largest fire, in eastern San Diego County, caused at least 11 deaths, including two who died inside their car as they apparently tried to escape the flames, San Diego Sheriff Bill Kolender said.

One person was found dead in a trailer, one in a motor home and four in vehicles, county sheriff's spokeswoman Susan Knauss said. Three were killed while trying to escape on foot and two were dead on arrival at local hospitals.

"We were literally running through fire," said Lisza Pontes, 43, who escaped the fire with her family after the roar of flames woke them at 3:45 a.m. As they drove off, they saw a neighbor's mobile home explode.

"I was grabbing wet towels. Fire was at our feet," Pontes said. "It was blazing over our heads and burning everywhere."

The 100,000-acre fire started Saturday near the mountain town of Julian when a lost hunter set off a signal fire, authorities said. The hunter was detained and may face charges.

Another fire near San Diego that started Sunday killed one man and destroyed 36 homes while burning through about 3,000 acres, Lora Lowes of the California Department of Forestry said. It also prompted evacuations in northeastern Escondido.

In a San Diego neighborhood on the western flank of the fire, at least 150 homes were either destroyed or damaged, San Diego police said.

Fire also forced the evacuation of a Federal Aviation Administration control center in San Diego, disrupting air travel across the nation. Some airlines canceled flights into the region.

The flames drew much of their strength from the fierce Santa Ana winds, whose gusts of up to 70 mph moved the fires along.

Around the congested suburbs of San Bernardino, a city of 185,000 about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, one flank of a 50,000-acre fire burned through four towns while the other flank destroyed more than 300 homes.

Two men collapsed and died, one as he was evacuating his canyon home and the other as he watched his house burn, the county coroner said.

The 30-mile fire in the San Bernardino area was formed when two smaller fires merged, covering the region with thick smoke and ash.

Other fires on the outskirts of Los Angeles County merged to create a 47,150-acre fire that threatened 2,000 homes in four communities and closed four highways, sealing off access to two mountain towns, fire spokeswoman Michele Alcorn said.

Firefighters, including 25 strike teams and 125 engines, tried to make a stand at Crestline in the San Bernardino National Forest, according to U.S. Forest Service fire information officer Stanton Florea. But hours later, Florea said homes there were burning as well.

Firefighters were spread thinly around threatened communities, focusing on saving what homes they could. Winds prevented the air tanker drops of retardant and use of backfires that are key tactics of fire containment.

The area is vulnerable because drought and an infestation of bark beetles have left millions of dead trees.

"If the fire starts to crown, racing from one tree to the next, it will be an extreme situation," Florea said.

Brandy DeBatte, 21, stayed at her Crestline home until the electricity went out and the smoke started to thicken.

"I got our animals. I got insurance papers. I didn't want to be up there if the town was going to burn down," she said.

Hours later, she was having second thoughts as she realized how much she had left behind: "I should have gotten more out, and I didn't."

Three looters who tried to take advantage of the San Bernardino evacuations were arrested, police said.

Gov. Gray Davis, who visited the San Bernardino fire on Friday, returned Sunday to announce he was extending the state of emergency to Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

"This is a terrible situation," Davis said. "These are the worst fires that we've faced in California in 10 years."

Davis' administration also gave an emergency briefing to Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Some of the evacuations ordered included Indian reservation casinos, California State University, San Bernardino, where fire burned two temporary classrooms and a temporary fitness center, and Patton State Hospital, home to 1,300 mental patients.

About 1,100 prison inmates also were evacuated, and at least 200 juvenile wards were evacuated Sunday from two probation camps in La Verne, said Ken Kondo, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Probation Department spokesman.

About 1,000 people packed the San Bernardino International Airport center. Fifty of those evacuees were elderly people in wheelchairs who were taken from a convalescent home.

At the Alexander Hughes Community Center in Claremont, where more than 50 homes were destroyed, evacuees searched for friends and neighbors.

A note on a bulletin board outside the center read: "Dear Kim and Joanne. I came for you here and want to offer you my extra bedroom and as much hospitality as you need. Love, Gina."

The winds were expected to subside Monday before picking up later in the week in the San Bernardino area, National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Balfour said.

"We'll have a 24- to 36-hour window where winds will die down, but the vegetation is so dry and the terrain so steep that the fire will probably take off and go into the mountains then," Balfour said. "It will want to race up the ridges."

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