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Calif. fires kill 15, destroy 1,134 homes
( 2003-10-28 14:23) (Agencies)

Ash fell on the beach like snow and drivers turned on their headlights in the smoky daytime streets Monday as wildfires that have reduced entire neighborhoods to moonscapes skipped through the hills of Southern California and threatened 30,000 more homes.

California's deadliest outbreak of fires in more than a decade has destroyed at least 1,134 homes, killed at least 15 people and consumed more than 483,000 acres stretching from the Mexican border to the suburbs northeast of Los Angeles.

"This will be the most expensive fire in California history, both in loss of property and the cost of fighting it," said Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services.

An unidentified man watches a wildfire burn on a neighboring hill in Lakeside, Calif. Monday night, Oct 27, 2003.  [AP]
The death toll jumped from 13 to 15 Monday after the bodies of two people were found on a road near San Diego.

Several people suffered burns and smoke inhalation, including eight hospitalized at the University of California, San Diego, Medical Center. Two had burns over more than 55 percent of their bodies, spokeswoman Eileen Callahan said.

Managers of California's power grid estimated that 70,000 to 85,000 Southern California customers were without electricity because fires had damaged transmission lines.

A 90,000-acre wildfire that straddles the Los Angeles-Ventura county line began moving slowly toward million-dollar mansions in a gated community in Los Angeles. California Department of Forestry Battalion Chief Thomas Foley said that in a "worst-case scenario," the blaze could spread all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said his home near San Diego was among the hundreds damaged or destroyed. Further east, a small border crossing 70 miles from San Diego was closed as fire cut off roads leading to the U.S.-Mexico border, said Vince Bond of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.

The dry, hot Santa Ana winds that have fanned the flames began to ease in some areas Monday, raising hopes that overwhelmed firefighters could make progress with the help of reinforcements on their way from other Western states. But the danger was still high.

The San Diego-area fires raced through chaparral and grass, sometimes sparing one home or one cluster of trees while destroying those around it.

"It would be disingenuous to say we have control of these fires. Right now we are throwing everything we can at them," Jones said. "It's such erratic conditions. These are still tremendously dangerous with very little control or containment."

President Bush designated the fire-stricken region a major disaster area, opening the door to grants, loans and other aid to residents and businesses in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties.

"This is a devastating fire and it's a dangerous fire. And we're prepared to help in any way we can," Bush said at the White House.

Gov. Gray Davis moved to activate the National Guard and summon help from neighboring states. He predicted the cost of the fires would be in the billions.

He toured the fire area in San Bernardino and saw "just homes reduced to rubble, charred belongings still sending off smoke."

He was followed later by Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had a fire briefing in Ventura County and praised work by firefighters.

He thanked Bush for swiftly declaring an emergency and said he would go to Washington on Tuesday to meet with federal officials "to make sure that the federal money will come through."

Across Southern California, the sun glowed red and smoke stung the eyes and lungs. Airport baggage handlers wore masks against the smoke and the ash dropping across the landscape.

"My eyes are burning right now something terrible," said 74-year-old Maury Glantz in San Diego, holding a towel over his mouth and nose. "I have to get out."

Even the primates at the San Diego Zoo went indoors to escape the misery. "Their lungs are built like ours so they can be affected by the smoke," said zoo spokeswoman Yadira Galindo.

Many of those who died in the wildfires ignored evacuation orders and were caught by flames because they waited until the last minute to flee, Sheriff Bill Kolender said.

"When you are asked to leave, do it immediately," he said. "Do not wait."

San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman said he was worried that three fires that incinerated 585 homes in San Diego County would merge into a super fire, pushing already strained resources to the breaking point.

A state of emergency was declared in the four stricken counties, where the fires had laid waste to entire blocks of homes, closed major highways, shuttered schools, disrupted air travel nationwide and sent people running for their lives.

People were urged to stay indoors because of the smoky air, and hospitals treated a number of people who complained of breathing trouble.

"You could almost smell the smoke and you could almost taste fire," said Leilani Baker, 46, of San Diego. She was sitting at a bus stop, her shoulders covered with ash.

Eleven people were killed by the so-called Cedar Fire, California's largest blaze at 150,000 acres. The fire was ignited Saturday near the mountain town of Julian when a lost hunter set off a signal fire, authorities said. The hunter may face charges.

In San Bernardino County, a blaze called the Old Fire has destroyed more than 450 homes. On Monday, the flames jumped a road and moved into the heavily forested small town of Crestline.

A major fire burning closer to Los Angeles is believed to have been started by arsonists.

"Those who start these fires are no better than domestic terrorists and should be dealt with as such," said Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.

The arsonists "have no idea how many lives they've ruined," said Trisha Mitchell, standing amid the debris that was once her childhood home in San Bernardino.

Days after running for her life from a fire that ripped through her San Bernardino neighborhood, Pati Wecker returned home in the Del Rosa area to find the only thing left standing of her house was an archway.

Across the street, a park with green grass and trees was untouched.

Digging through the ruins of her home, Wecker found an untouched porcelain angel and two beer steins. A burned photo album crumbled when she picked it up.

Her husband was killed in Vietnam and she raised her six children in the home that is known in the neighborhood as "Momma's House."

"They all said we will build another house," said Wecker, 69.

When the fire closed in, the only things she was able to get out of the house were her purse and a few clothes. "Everything in there, even my five cats," she said, pointing to the ruins. She was unable to get part of her dentures: "I don't even have my teeth."

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