Fire displaces thousands

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More than 250,000 people have been evacuated from homes in the wake of dozens of wild fires that have charred thousands of acres in Southern California.

The fires – strengthened by high temperatures, dry conditions, and unusually strong Santa Ana winds – are consuming dry brush and trees as well as structures from the high desert to Malibu and San Diego County.

Hundreds of structures have been destroyed, and thousands of more homes are threatened. One fatality has been confirmed.

The resources of firefighters have been stretched to their limits.

“We have more houses burning than we have people and engine companies to fight them,” San Diego Fire Captain Lisa Blake said.

Emergency personnel were diverted fighting fires to evacuate people who refused to leave their homes, officials said.

Orange County’s Santiago Fire north of Irvine was intentionally set by one or more arsonists, according to the county Fire Authority. As of Monday night, the fire had charred 15,800 acres and was 30 percent contained. Voluntary evacuations were given for Santiago Canyon Road and Hangmans Tree Road. Almost 500 firefighters with 94 engines are battling the blaze. Only one outbuilding has been destroyed so far.

“This is the sixth fire in 20 years and it’s the worst one, the scariest one,” said Brett Peterson, 46, a long-time resident of Silverado Canyon.

Tim Adams, 55; Larry Nihan, 50; and Ron Dugan, 47; – all residents of Silverado Canyon – watched the fire together from about a half-mile away.

“I’ll take my tools so I can keep building,” said Adams, a carpenter.

Nihan was prepared to evacuate.

“I’ve got my paperwork, our animals and my work trailer,” he said.

Dugan was determined to take his all-terrain vehicle with him.

“As long as I can get my quad,” he said, he is ready to evacuate.

Mary Schreiber, 59, heads Silverado Canyon’s Fire Safe Council, which acts as a middleman between residents and fire agencies. She was hopeful that the worst of the fire had passed.

“The smoke isn’t as thick and it’s looking whiter. I’m the most optimistic person you’ll run into,” she said an hour and a half before a ridge near Santiago Canyon Road exploded in orange and red flames.

But when asked for additional comments, she said, “Pray.”

Brett Peterson, 46, also a Silverado Canyon resident, was not optimistic.

“I loaded up my art, my mountain bike and my surfboard,” he said. “Everything else is going to burn.”

Concerns across Southern California

The fire in Malibu has destroyed or damaged 16 structures and threatens thousands more, according to the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The fire there is expected to burn an additional two or three days and will threaten thousands of homes before it is put out. The blazes have covered 310 square miles already.

Nearly 130 homes have been destroyed in Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County.

The vast majority of the evacuations have been in San Diego County, where 250,000 residents have been moved to high schools, senior centers, the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers.

While fires have not broken out in Fullerton, they have affected CSUF students and staff.

Lizzie Pelaez, a CSUF nursing major who lives in Chino, is worried about her brother, Montebello Fire Department Capt. Fernando Pelaez. She thinks he may have been sent to the fire in Malibu.

“You always worry about these things,” she said. “There’s already been four firefighters injured. I worry about backfires, if he’s going to get caught in the middle of one. Are there enough firefighters?”

Kinesiology major Jada Beasley worries about her uncle.

“My uncle had to sleep in his car. He lives in Canyon Country. The hotels by his house are all packed. He had to throw things in his car and sleep in the parking lot at Target. There’s been tons of people evacuated, and it’s total chaos,” she said.

Leo Garcia, an administrative support assistant for the CSUF Alumni Association, worried about her godmother and uncle, who live in Escondido.

“All I know is supposedly they were being evacuated because of the fires. They called to say that they were coming over,” she said. “They haven’t called, so I don’t think it’s that major yet.”

Julie Maxham, a double major in theater arts and English, went to visit her friends in Tustin Ranch just as they were evacuating.

“They’re in Tustin Ranch, close to Culver and Portola. They were evacuated because the smoke was really heavy,” she said. She believed the evacuation was voluntary.

“All the gated communities had their gates unlocked,” she said of Tustin Ranch. “There were like 10 people sitting on top of the wall (around a gated community), drinking and watching the fire.”

Maxham watched the fire from a shopping center at Sand Canyon Road and Irvine Boulevard, taking in a spectacular scene.

“There were 100-foot flames, that’s what they said. And the fire moved up that hill so fast.”

Some residents were completely surprised by the fire.

“We talked to these two men coming from Laguna Niguel. They had been gone, and they had time to get their cats and leave. They had no idea that the fire had been going,” she said.

Maxham said that spectators became a problem along Irvine Boulevard.

“There were people from out of the area watching,” she said. “And there were people crossing the road [Irvine Boulevard] and going into the field to get closer. I thought, ‘Are you crazy? One gust of wind and that fire will overtake you.’ ”

Maxham added that the fire’s speed was amazing.

“The fire on the other side of the hill made a glow, so you could see the silhouette of the hill. I turned to talk to someone, and I looked back, and the fire had come down the hill, and it was like a burst of flame,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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