San Diego's Inferno: Relief Ahead?

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Rick Bowmer / AP

Firefighters watch a backfire on a hillside in Jamul, Calif., Tuesday, October 23, 2007.

Relief may be in sight for one of the most challenging wildfires in Southern California's history. The flames are still burning out of control in the San Diego area, where more than 500,000 and perhaps as many as 950,000 have been evacuated and hundreds of homes destroyed. But the hot desert winds that fueled the flames began to ease Tuesday night, giving hope that the quick westerly progress of the fire would finally slow. By nightfall, the fires were on the cusp of Rancho Santa Fe, the highest-income community in the United States, which is thick with tall and brittle-dry eucalyptus trees.

The fires already have burned hundreds of acres to the east, north and south of that community, and the devastation has attracted the attention of the White House. President Bush declared Southern California a federal disaster zone after speaking to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this week. Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff compared the fires to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans two years ago. "I think there's no question that a couple of lessons from Katrina we're putting into effect here are, first of all, planning and preparation in advance for these kinds of challenges," Chertoff said in a press conference. "Second, we have really flooded the zone as quickly as possible by staging assets to deal both with the firefighting issue and the response issue." Chertoff cited cooperation with the Defense Department and state authorities with helping battle the fire.

The peaceful evacuation of a large number of people indeed has been smooth, and firefighters have been able to stage both ground and air assaults on the fires despite heavy winds. Still, the steady, frustrating and unpredictable advance of the fire shows that even the best-laid plans are no match for the fierce force of nature. In this case, the foe was not just fire, but its ally, wind, specifically the type known in Southern California as a Santa Ana, which blows hot and hard from the desert, often in October, when the dry, arid region is at its most vulnerable for wildfires. The effect is analogous to a match striking sandpaper. The cause of most of this week's fires are unknown, although a downed power line may be responsible for at least one. Winds up to 70 miles an hour blew over San Diego on Sunday night, and residents awoke the next morning to find much of their county ablaze.

To the south, just north of the Mexican town of Tecate, the fire by Tuesday night had charred 70,000 acres, destroyed 200 homes, killed one man and injured 25, including five firefighters. To the north, the Witch Creek Fire burned 164,000 acres in the towns and communities of Poway, Ramona, Lakeside, San Marcos, Valley Center, Rincon, Wildcat Canyon and Rancho Santa Fe. By Tuesday, it had destroyed 500 homes and injured seven firefighters and two civilians. Other fires — in Rice Canyon, Poomacha, McCoy and Coronado Hills — destroyed homes and burned thousands of acres throughout the county, keeping firefighters scrambling and frightened residents wondering whether their neighborhoods would be next.

Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers, was turned into the largest of the county's 25 evacuation centers. With the fire affecting much of the county's rural areas, many of the centers found accommodations for farm animals as well as domestic pets. LeDanian Tomlinson and several other San Diego Chargers were among the county residents evacuated from their homes. While many of the displaced found shelter in school gymnasiums converted into Red Cross shelters, the Chargers headed to Arizona, leaving the site of next Sunday's home game against the Houston Texans uncertain.

Fire authorities in San Diego say they have never seen a fire quite like the one they are facing. But for all its fury, the fire as yet is not the worst the county has experienced. This week's fires have burned more than 263,000 acres, destroyed or damaged 1,750 homes and businesses and killed at least one person. Just four years ago, the Cedar fire, the largest in the state's history based on structures destroyed, burned 273,246 acres in San Diego County, destroyed 2,847 structures and killed 15 people. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, San Diego had three of the 20 largest fires in the state's history, including the 1970 Laguna fire that burned 175,425 acres and killed five, and the 2003 Paradise fire, which burned 56,700 acres and killed two.

While it's too soon to tell the final damage of this week's fires, the reduced number of fatalities and lost structures ultimately might be attributed to lessons learned since the Cedar fire. Among the changes since then is a new reverse 911 system that automatically calls homeowners with a pre-recorded message warning them if they are in a mandatory evacuation zone. All schools in the county are closed this week, mail delivery was halted and businesses ranging from corporate offices to sandwich shops were closed. People were urged to stay home. Those who did venture out became snarled in traffic jams with evacuees or scrambling to find alternate routes around closed highways. Adding to the county's hardships, looters have been caught in evacuated neighborhoods and some scam artists reportedly have tricked people into evacuating so they could burglarize their homes.

At a press conference Tuesday, California Insurance Commissioner Stephen Poizner said his fraud investigation response team is in the county to crack down on insurance scam artists. Poizner also said displaced homeowners may be entitled to at least two weeks of hotel expenses under state's fire insurance laws, and he vowed to cut insurance red tape in general for victims. Following the 2003 fires, hundreds of lawsuits were filed by homeowners who claimed they did not have enough coverage to rebuild after they lost their homes. In April of this year, the first trial involved in the dispute ended with a jury determining the insurance company was not at fault.