SAN DIEGO - Walls of wind-whipped flames consumed hundreds of homes across tinder-dry Southern California on Tuesday, raising the number of people forced to flee the flames into the hundreds of thousands.
The blazes bedeviled firefighters as fires roared from mountain passes to the edges of the state's celebrated coastline, spreading so quickly that even hotels serving as temporary shelters for evacuees had to be evacuated. Two people have been killed.
By day three, the dozen wildfires had burned more than 1,200 homes and businesses, and the destruction may only be the start for the region. With forecasts calling for hotter temperatures and fierce wind gusts, the flames were proving nearly impossible to fight.
At least 346,000 homes were ordered to evacuate in San Diego County alone, sheriff's officials said. But the total number could be much higher, and state officials were still struggling to estimate how many people had fled.
Marilee Bishop of Running Springs and her 10 year-old-daughter, Erica, rubbed their red eyes Tuesday morning as they woke up in a Wal-Mart parking lot where they spent the night after being forced to leave their home.
"No one ever expects something like this to happen to them," said Bishop, as thick smoke rose in the skies behind her.
Since they began Sunday, the fires have burned at least 245,957 acres, or 384 square miles - an area larger than New York City.
As the fires spread, most out of control, smaller blazes were merging into larger, more fearsome ones. Evacuations were being announced in one community after another as firefighters found themselves overwhelmed by gale-force Santa Ana winds, some gusting to 70 mph.
President Bush declared a federal emergency for seven counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts. But White House press secretary Dana Perino said it was "very premature" to talk on Tuesday about a presidential stop in the region.
"All of us across this nation are concerned for the families who have lost their homes and the many families who have been evacuated from their homes," Bush said Tuesday. "We send the help of the federal government."
She was surrounded by a ring of orange light from the fires all along the horizon.
Hearing that some of her friends had already been evacuated from their apartments in Calabasas, near the Malibu Canyon fire, Decker, a former Lodi High School student and current senior at Pepperdine University, decided to leave her apartment before the fire forced her out.
She and a few friends drove to the city of Orange, where they stayed with a friend overnight. From her friend's house she could see the fire burning in Irvine, but decided to stay at the apartment.
Because classes at Pepperdine University were canceled on Monday the group decided to go to Disneyland, where they spent an afternoon.
Decker, learning that her apartment in Calabasas had not been evacuated, decided to return to her home Monday night.
- News-Sentinel staff.
• Visit the Safe and Well List by going to http://www.redcross.org and clicking on the Safe and Well List link.
• Friends and family are urged not to call evacuation centers directly, said Laura Howe, spokesperson for the American Red Cross. At this stage, she said, the centers do not have the resources to answer phone calls.
- News-Sentinel Staff
There are five fires burning around me and my home in north Orange County.
The Irvine fire, is one of the most recent, and it is coming from the east. The skies are very dark and the wind is raging and painful to be in. The wind gusts with ashes and dirt, making it incredibly hard for anyone to be outdoors.
My face was cut up (minor cuts) yesterday due to these Santa Ana winds that have reached near 60 mph. Whole trees have toppled over, as well as street lights and telephone poles.
My car is covered with ash and dirt. If I am outside for longer than two hours, then I am filthy and have to wash my clothes. It's very hard to breathe and my nose is constantly clogged due to the fine debris.
Everyone's eyes are burning.
I am watching the television news and in person. Homes in the area are burning with no firefighters able to stop them. The firefighters are strained and using every resource. They are picking and choosing which fires to fight, because there just aren't enough of them.
Orange County sheriff's deputies are attempting to transport inmates due to an immediate evacuation in Irvine.
While I haven't been asked to evacuate yet, areas within 10 to 15 miles of me have. I can walk out my door and see through the dark yellow air to the orange flames in all of the hills and mountains around me in nearly every direction.
Hundreds of homes have been lost and 250,000 people were evacuated earlier today in San Diego because fire officials don't know where the fires will head next.
The winds are even more fierce in other areas, some gusting up to 70 mph, and two nearby hill communities close to 80 mph.
Smoke and bad air is being pushed in from every direction. The fires are literally popping up from out of nowhere.
I haven't called my parents to tell them of how immediate the threat is because I don't want to worry them. But today the weather is even hotter, now topping 90 degrees.
In essence, you have hurricane-like winds mixed-in with multiple fires, and horrible air quality threatening hundreds of thousands of homes and even more people.
Firefighters are fighting this blaze from every town and even some from out of state.
Little progress is being made, and locals have gone from nervous, to alarmed as these fires continue to burn and push in a different direction every few minutes.
Fire crews and fleeing residents described desperate conditions that were sure to get worse. Temperatures across Southern California were about 10 degrees above average and were expected to approach 100 degrees Tuesday in Orange and San Diego counties.
Deputies arrested two men for looting in the community of Ramona, and there were a handful of other looting cases reported, said San Diego Sheriff's Lt. Mike McClain.
The fires were exploding and shooting embers in all directions, preventing crews from forming traditional fire lines and severely limiting aerial bombardment, officials said.
"Lifesaving is our priority. Getting people out from in front of the fire - those have been our priorities," said Capt. Don Camp, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Thousands of residents sought shelter at fairgrounds, schools and community centers. The largest gathering was at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, where up to 10,000 evacuees anxiously watched the stadium's television sets, hoping for a glimpse of their neighborhood on the local news. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders pleaded for donations of blankets, cots, pillows and food for the people staying there, and officials said more people were expected to arrive Tuesday.
"It's basically a mass migration here in San Diego County," Luis Monteagudo, a spokesman for the county's emergency effort.
San Diego County was ablaze from its rural north to its border region with Mexico, where the wildfires that started Sunday claimed their first fatality: Thomas Varshock, 52, of Tecate, a town on the U.S. side of the border southeast of San Diego. His body was found Sunday afternoon, the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office said.
An unidentified civilian died of burns in a fire in Santa Clarita, the U.S. Forest Service said. Overall, 42 people were injured, 16 of them firefighters.
In San Diego County, public schools were closed, as were campuses at the University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University.
The scope of the infernos was immense and was reminiscent of the blazes that tore through Southern California four years ago this month, killing 22 and destroying 3,640 homes.
The fires have been made worse by fierce Santa Ana winds. The winds - which sweep through Southern California's canyons in fall and winter - are stronger than normal, turning already parched scrubland into tinder. They generated walls of flame that bore down on housing developments in a wide swath.
East of Los Angeles, a two-front fire destroyed at least 160 homes in the Lake Arrowhead area, the same mountain resort community where hundreds of homes were lost four years earlier. Officials said at least 100 more homes were destroyed Tuesday in the mountain community of Running Springs, not far away.
Touring an evacuee camp at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to do everything in his power to assist the firefighting effort and help those who have lost their homes.
"I will be relentless all the way through this," Schwarzenegger said.
Associated Press writers Chelsea J. Carter, Jeremiah Marquez, Daisy Nguyen and Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles, Martha Mendoza in Lake Arrowhead, Jacob Adelman in Santa Clarita, Elliot Spagat and Scott Lindlaw in San Diego, Pauline Arrillaga in Del Mar and Jennifer Loven in Washington contributed to this report.