SAN DIEGO – More than a quarter-million people were urged to flee their homes across Southern California on Monday as wildfires blown by fierce desert winds raced over the landscape with terrifying speed, even leaping a 10-lane freeway in a matter of minutes.
At least one person was killed, and dozens were injured. Scores of homes and other buildings were feared burned, and thousands more were threatened as more than a dozen blazes formed a hellish, spidery pattern of luminous orange covering at least 310 square miles of the drought-stricken region.
“The sky was just red. Everywhere I looked was red, glowing. Law enforcement came barreling in with police cars with loudspeakers telling everyone to get out now,” said Ronnie Leigh, 55, who fled her home at a mobile home park as flames darkened the sky over the nearby ridge line.
Firefighters – who lost valuable time trying to persuade stubborn homeowners to leave – were almost completely overwhelmed as gale-force winds gusting to 70 mph scattered embers on the dry brush. California officials pleaded for help from fire departments in other states.
“A lot of people are going to lose their homes today,” San Diego Fire Capt. Lisa Blake said.
More than 265,000 people from Malibu to San Diego were warned to leave their homes. More than 250,000 were told to flee in San Diego County alone, where hundreds of patients were moved by school bus and ambulance from a hospital and nursing homes, some in hospital gowns and wheelchairs.
Some carried their medical records in large zip-lock plastic bags.
A 1,049-inmate jail in Orange County was evacuated because of heavy smoke. The prisoners were taken by bus to other lockups.
At San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL’s Chargers, thousands of people huddled in eerie silence on the bleachers, staring at muted TV news reports of the wildfires. A lone concession stand served coffee and doughnuts.
Many evacuees gathered in the parking lot with their pets, which were banned from the stadium.
The sprawling Del Mar Fairgrounds on the coast was also turned into an evacuation center, along with high schools and senior centers.
At least one of the fires, in Orange County, was believed to have been set. And a blaze threatening the homes of the rich and famous in Malibu might have been caused by downed power lines, authorities said. Another blaze was started by a car fire. Flying embers started new fires at every turn.
The blaze was burning so fast that authorities did not have an accurate count of how many homes had been destroyed.
“It was nuclear winter. It was like Armageddon. It looked like the end of the world,” Mitch Mendler, a San Diego firefighter, said as he and his crew stopped at a shopping center parking lot to refill their water truck from a hydrant near a restaurant. Asked how many homes had burned, he said, “I lost count.”
Tom Sollie, 49, ignored evacuation orders in Rancho Bernardo to help his neighbors spray roofs on his street with water. His home was untouched, but he watched a neighbor’s house reduced to nothing but the remnants of a brick chimney. “The house went up like a Roman candle,” Sollie said.
He added: “If we weren’t here, the whole neighborhood would go up. There just aren’t enough fire trucks around.”
The blazes in San Diego County and elsewhere erupted one after another over the weekend.
Things got worse Monday, when several new fires erupted and other fires merged. Parts of seven Southern California counties were ablaze.
All San Diego police officers and detectives were ordered to return to work to help move people to safety and handle other fire-related emergencies.
Firefighters complained that their efforts to stop the flames were delayed when they were confronted by people who refused to leave their homes.
“They didn’t evacuate at all, or delayed until it was too late,” said Bill Metcalf, a fire boss. “And those folks who are making those decisions are actually stripping fire resources.”
As flames, thick smoke and choking ash filled the air around San Diego County’s Lake Hodges, Stan Smith ignored orders to evacuate and stayed behind to help rescue his neighbor Ken Morris’ horses.