500,000 ordered to flee California's 'perfect firestorm'

Howling winds and drought fuelled more than a dozen uncontrollable wildfires across Southern California for the third day in a row, creating what a fire official called the perfect firestorm.

Homes 'being destroyed as we speak': Schwarzenegger

Howling winds and extreme drought fuelled uncontrollable wildfires across Southern California for the third day in a row Tuesday, as the blazesengulfedhundreds of homes inwhatone fire officialcalled the "perfect firestorm."

High winds drive hot embers smouldering in the Malibu Hills on Monday in California. A wildfire driven by powerful Santa Ana winds has forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes. ((Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press))

About 750 homesacross the state havebeen reduced to ashes as the relentless Santa Ana desert winds continue to fan the16 majorblazes, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

The fires are being blamed for at least one death in the hardest hit area of San Diego County, while at least18 firefightershave beeninjured in their attempts to keep evacuation paths clear, Schwarzeneggertold reporters at Lake Arrowhead, where officials are co-ordinating the massive fire response teams.

"There are homes being destroyed as we speak," Schwarzenegger said.

Some 25 other people were reported injured since the fires began Sunday, according to the Associated Press.

As many as 500,000 people inSan Diego County have been told to leave their homes, theLos AngelesTimes reported.

The Associated Press reported Tuesdaymorning that 300,000 people had left their homes.

Firefighters feared hotter temperatures and high windsTuesdaywould make it even harder to fight the fires, though forecasters said relief could come Wednesday as the Santa Ana winds are expected to diminish.

Early Tuesday, U.S. President George W. Bush declared a federal emergency for seven California counties,meaning federal disaster relief will be available to the area.

"All of us across this nation are concerned for the families who have lost their homes and the many families who have been evacuated from their homes," he said during a speech at the National Defence University in Washington, D.C. "We send the help of the federal government."

The Defence Department has agreed to send six Air Force and Air National Guard water- or retardant-dropping planes Tuesday to help the firefighting effort at Schwarzenegger's request.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the federal government is applying lessons learned from a disaster that deeply damaged Bush's presidency— Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005— to do a better job now.

'Most rapid fire spread that I've seen'

Evacuations were announced in one community after another as firefighters found themselves overwhelmed as smaller blazes merged into larger ones.

Gale-force Santa Ana winds, some gusting to 110 km/h, are fuelling the flames. The desert winds, which sweep through Southern California's canyons in the fall and winter, are stronger than normal and turning already parched scrubland into tinder.

"This is some of the most rapid fire spread that I've seen in my career," Capt. Don Camp with California'sDepartment of Forestry and Fire Protection told CBC Newsworld on the telephone from San Diego.

"The winds, the low humidity and the unseasonably warm temperatures for this time of year have all created a perfect firestorm," he added.

Father died trying to save home

This image of the area around Los Angeles captured by the MODIS on the Aqua satellite on Oct. 21, shows smoke pouring from several large blazes northwest of Los Angeles. ((MODIS))

Canadian Dr. Jay Doucet, who is working at University of California's San Diego Medical Center where the most serious victimshave beenadmitted, said a father diedwhile working with his son to defend their house against the encroaching flames.

Four firefighters tried to rescue the two, but became trapped and were treated for serious burns, alongside the son, he said.

The majority of the hospital's patients, about 12 of the 19, have been undocumented aliens trying to cross over the nearby Mexican border, he said.

"I think they were trying to escape without notice underneath the smoke. Unfortunately, in every case, the fire caught up with them," said Doucet.

'It was like Armageddon'

The Southern California fires have been compared to ones that tore through many of the same areas in the fall of 2003, killing 22 people and destroying 3,640 homes.

By midday Tuesday, about 99,500 hectares wereablaze. Fires were spreading so quickly some residents were evacuated frombuildings twice — first from their home and then from a friend's place or shelter.

Authorities in San Diego County, the hardest-hit area, said they lost track of how many buildings were 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 centre parking lot to refill their water truck from a hydrant.

Asked how many homes had burned, he said, "I lost count."

In the city of San Diego, Mayor Jerry Sanders urged thousands of people Tuesday to leave their homes in a voluntary evacuation.

He also asked residents to stay off the roads to allow emergency vehicles through and put out a request for donations of food and bedding.

Gourmet meals, massages for evacuees

One of the largest gatherings of evacuees in San Diego Countywas at Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL's San Diego Chargers, late Monday.

Up to 10,000evacuees were enjoying gourmet buffets and massages at the stadium, though still anxiously watching television for news on their neighbourhoods.

After Schwarzenegger toured the stadium Monday night, he said, "The people are happy. They have everything here."

That was in marked difference to New Orleans evacuees who waded through floodwaters to arrive at the Louisiana Superdome in 2005, then endured lack of food, sanitation or law enforcement.

With files from the Associated Press