- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Tens of thousands of people fled mountain communities in San Diego and San Bernardino counties yesterday and created a traffic jam on a narrow mountain highway as residents raced to avoid California’s deadliest wildfires in more than a decade.

Frustrated firefighters said there was little they could do to stop the flames, and exhausted crews in San Diego County were pulled back even though two devastating blazes began merging into a superfire near Julian, a mountain town of 3,500 residents known for its apple crop.

To the north, about 80,000 full-time residents have been evacuated from the San Bernardino mountains since Saturday. Tens of thousands left yesterday alone.

“Just about everything is burning,” said William Bagnell, fire chief of the Crest Forest Fire Protection District.

Authorities announced two more deaths in San Bernardino County yesterday, bringing the death toll from the fires to 16. The number had been at 17, but San Diego County authorities lowered their figure by one.

Nearly 1,600 homes have been destroyed, and 10,000 firefighters were on the front lines throughout the state. Gov. Gray Davis estimated the cost at nearly $2 billion.

“This may be the worst disaster the state has ever faced and is likely to be the costliest,” said the Democratic governor. “This is a total disaster. It reminds me of when I was in Vietnam — communities were burned out.”

Since Oct. 21, at least 10 wind-driven wildfires — many of them arson-caused — have rampaged through Southern California, demolishing neighborhoods, gutting businesses and blackening more than a half-million acres of land from the Mexican border to the Ventura-Los Angeles county line.

Just west of Julian, dozens of fire crews tried to protect homes amid dry brush, pine and oak.

A five-member crew pulled up outside a concrete and stucco home and went to work removing awnings and using chainsaws to cut away shrubs.

As they worked, propane tanks exploded in the distance, sending columns of black smoke into a sky already painted orange by flames.

“This is some of the most stressful firefighting I’ve done,” said U.S. Forest Service firefighter Damien Sanchez, a seven-year veteran.

In San Diego County, a blaze of more than 200,000 acres formed a 45-mile front stretching into Scripps Ranch and Julian. The fire was just miles from joining with a 37,000-acre fire near Escondido.

The two fires have destroyed about 900 homes. If they merge, the flames would cut off escape routes and whip up the wind.

Reinforcements were sent out, but Rich Hawkins, a U.S. Forest Service fire chief, said he needed twice as many firefighters.

“They’re so fatigued that despite the fact the fire perimeter might become much larger, we’re not willing to let the firefighters continue any further,” he said.

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