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CA towns face devastation

Tens of thousands of people streamed out of mountain communities in San Diego and San Bernardino counties Tuesday as wildfires continued to devour land, homes and lives across Southern California.


"This is the worst fire I've ever seen."

—James Mainer, Crestline resident since 1955

Tens of thousands of people streamed out of mountain communities in San Diego and San Bernardino counties Tuesday as wildfires continued to devour land, homes and lives across Southern California.

“This may be the worst disaster the state has ever faced and is likely to be the costliest,” said Gov. Gray Davis.

Despite a massive ground and air assault on the fires by some 10,000 firefighters, wildfires continued to rage out of control. By midnight Tuesday, the fires had consumed more than 550,000 acres, destroyed an estimated 2,000 homes and left 16 people dead.

At least two of the fires are believed to have been deliberately set and authorities continued to seek two men wanted in connection with the fires in San Bernardino County.

The worst of 13 fires reported throughout the region Tuesday were in popular mountain communities in San Diego and San Bernardino counties.

Two of the blazes in San Diego County – the Cedar fire which has burned more than 233,000 acres and the Paradise fire which has charred 17,000 acres – threatened to merge into one “super fire” near the small mountain town of Julian, about 60 miles east of San Diego.

Julian, a historic gold mining town now better known for its apple festival, was evacuated and there was no report of damage late Tuesday night; the tiny community of Cuyamaca, however, was virtually wiped off the map.

There was zero containment of both fires and officials said containment might not happen until Monday. Winds were expected to kick up again Wednesday and Thursday hampering firefighting efforts but temperatures were forecast to be cooler with higher humidity. Winds were expected to abate by Friday.

The well-known Palomar Observatory, located about 70 miles northeast of San Diego and operated by the California Institute of Technology, was threatened by fire.

San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy said the fire was the worst in the city’s history.

Weary firefighters received some much needed help as additional firefighters arrived from other states or were diverted from other fires in Southern California. There was criticism that the state failed to provide enough support at the start of the fires.

Most public schools and universities in San Diego County were to remain closed for a third straight day Wednesday. Power was out to some 29,000 San Diego Gas & Electric customers.

In San Bernardino County, Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear were among the latest communities to be threatened by the wildfires after flames leaped across Highway 18. The blaze was fed by dry brush and millions of dead trees killed by a bark beetle infestation said officials. Officials feared that some 50,000 residences and 2,000 businesses could go up in flames.

Residents fleeing the fires clogged narrow mountain roads. A 35-mile backup was reported on Highway 18 out of Big Bear during the afternoon. Some homes along that highway were destroyed. Authorities stopped traffic from heading into the area.

“This is the worst fire I’ve ever seen,” said James Mainer, who has lived in Crestline in the San Bernardino mountains since 1955.

The San Bernardino County fire was believed set by an arsonist and a $60,000 reward was being offered. An artist’s sketch of one suspect has been released.

“The murderer who set this fire has created an unimaginable amount of terror and suffering,” said Dennis Hansberger, chairman of the county board of supervisors.

In Ventura and Los Angeles counties, firefighters launched a massive air and ground assault to get a handle on the Simi fire, which has burned more than 92,000 acres. Flames could be seen from Interstate 5 near Six Flags Magic Mountain and threatened the upscale Stevenson Ranch area west of Santa Clarita. That area was evacuated, as were portions of Chatsworth in Los Angeles County. Firefighters said no homes were destroyed in Chatsworth and they expected to be able to protect the homes in Stevenson Ranch.

A second blaze, the Piru fire, was burning near Fillmore and heading toward the Sespe Wilderness and the town of Santa Paula.

Governor Davis on Tuesday asked President Bush to add Riverside County to the list of four other counties already declared major disaster areas.

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