Wildfires continued Wednesday to blacken the Southern California landscape, scorching more than 400,000 acres and leaving an estimated 1,800 homes in ruins.
Firefighters again had to cope with strong gusty Santa Ana winds of 60 mph that pushed walls of flames across the region from Ventura County in the north to San Diego County in the south. Some 10,000 firefighters were battling the fires on the ground and from the air with water-dropping helicopters and tanker planes with flame retardant.
Windy conditions kept some of the aircraft grounded during the day.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger described the extremely dry brush, hot weather and strong winds as the "perfect storm for a fire."
"But everyone, at the same time, complains about the weather," he said at a news conference in Lake Arrowhead. "But we can't do anything about it. We have to just pray that the wind goes away, because as soon as we get rid of the wind, then the firefighters can really put an end to the fires all over the place."
A red flag warning remained in effect through Wednesday afternoon.
More than a dozen fires were burning throughout Southern California, forcing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes – the numbers ranged from more than 300,000 to 1 million people evacuated. Some 68,000 homes remained threatened.
An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people took refuge at Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers. Food, blankets, water and medical attention was being provided to people there, some of them camped in their vehicles, some of them in tents. Another shelter was set up at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which was also accommodating family pets and other animals, including horses and sheep.
At least 45 people, including 16 firefighters, were injured. Five people died in San Diego County, four of them evacuees. Officials said one death was directly related to the fire. Officials who reported another death in Los Angeles County later said that the report was in error.
More than 9,000 customers of Southern California Electric remained without power as the fires burned utility poles and transmission lines.
Fire crews were stretched thin trying to cope with both existing wildfires and new blazes that continued to erupt. New fires broke out in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Bernardino counties and evacuation orders were expanded in several locations throughout the region.
President Bush approved federal help and the White House said he would visit fire stricken areas Thursday. Schwarzenegger has already declared seven counties as state disaster areas and ordered in the National Guard to assist.
As the fires grew, so did their path of destruction. In Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs in San Bernardino County, mandatory evacuations were ordered throughout the entire mountain area.
More than 10,000 acres were burned by two separate fires there – the Slide and Green Valley blazes – with 400 homes destroyed. More than 1,500 homes remained threatened in the resort community.
Other evacuations were ordered Tuesday in San Diego County for the entire town of Julian, west of the city of San Diego, and on Palomar Mountain. Officials said Julian was without water and power.
Two of the major fires in the hard-hit county – the Harris fire in southeastern part of the county and the Witch blaze near Poway – scorched more than 275,000 acres and destroyed or damaged some 2,000 homes and businesses. The Harris fire was 10 percent contained; the much larger Witch fire was just 1 percent contained.
Other fires were also burning in the county, including the Rice fire near Fallbrook which has burned 4,500 acres.
Two fires were also reported burning on the Camp Pendleton base although they were not threatening any residences. Families at the Marine base have been told to be ready to evacuate.
In Orange County, the Santiago fire continued to rage, destroying 11 homes and threatening several thousand others in the Silverado and Modjeska canyon areas. The fire, which officials said was arson, has burned more than 18,000 acres. It was 30 percent contained.
Despite dire predictions about being able to contain the fires, there was some good news, too.
Residents were allowed to return to their homes in some areas, including Scripps Ranch, Poway, Del Mar Heights, Chula Vista and Carlsbad in San Diego County.
In Malibu, officials reopened the heavily traveled Pacific Coast Highway, which had been shut down since the Canyon fire erupted in the Los Angeles County community early Sunday. The fire has burned 4,400 acres and destroyed six homes and damaged nine others. About 1,500 people remain evacuated. The fire was 15 percent contained.
Elsewhere in Los Angeles County, containment grew to 80 percent – up from 27 percent in the morning - on the 38,000-acre Buckweed fire near Canyon Country, Saugus, Agua Dulce and Santa Clarita. The fire has destroyed 32 structures, including 15 homes.
Containment on the Magic fire, which was sparked Monday afternoon west of Interstate 5 south of the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park, jumped to 93 percent. The fire, which has burned 1,750 acres, was stopped before it could move from Los Angeles County into Ventura County.
The Ranch fire, burning north of Piru and Fillmore in Ventura County, was 10 percent contained. The fire has scarred more than 47,000 acres – down slightly from previous figures due to more accurate mapping.
Air quality throughout the Southern California area remained poor and health officials continued to advise people to avoid outdoor activity. Schools were advised to keep students indoors.
Faith-based groups were monitoring the fires and were in the early stages of planning a response.
United Church of Christ officials announced they were seeking $100,000 to assist people affected by the fires with long-term recovery.
"Wildfires in Southern California continue today forcing the evacuation of numbers of communities," the UCC said. "Many of the homes that have been damaged or destroyed are owned by people who are middle- to low-income families who will be in need of assistance to rebuild.
"Additionally," it said, "there have been a number of apartment complexes that have burned displacing residents - while we will not rebuild these buildings, persons who have no place to live will need care."
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) said it was responding with an emergency grant to the California-Pacific Annual Conference.
"In addition to an emergency grant to support the conference in its initial efforts, disaster response consultants are at the ready to provide the conference with their presence and guidance as needed," said the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, head of domestic disaster response for UMCOR.
Catholic Charities also said it was also mobilizing to respond to the disaster.
"With fires raging in Southern California, local Catholic Charities in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Bernardino/Riverside are coordinating and collaborating with their local Catholic and disaster relief partners to assess the needs and determine relief efforts," officials said.
Two members of the Presbyterian Disaster Response national response team were sent to the Malibu area – where the Malibu Presbyterian Church burned to the ground - to provide spiritual and emotional support to the Pacific Presbytery and church staff. PDA said it was also making funds available to assist the Malibu congregation to provide a humanitarian response to the community.