Firefighters beat back flames on Los Angeles' doorstep Tuesday, saving hundreds of homes in the city's San Fernando Valley. But exhausted crews were pulled back in San Diego County even though two devastating blazes threatened to merge into a super fire.
"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," said Rich Hawkins, a U.S. Forest Service fire chief. "They are too fatigued from three days of battle."
Ten thousand firefighters were on the front lines throughout the state, battling California's deadliest wildfires in more than a decade.
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 half a million acres of land from the Mexican border to the Ventura-Los Angeles county line. At least 15 people have died and nearly 1,600 homes have been destroyed. Two burn victims were in critical condition in San Diego.
"This may be the worst disaster the state has ever faced and is likely to be the costliest," Gov. Gray Davis said, estimating the cost at nearly $2 billion. He added: "This is a total disaster. It reminds me of when I was in Vietnam, communities were burned out."
Firefighters had feared they would lose hundreds of homes late Monday and early Tuesday as a fire in the hills between Los Angeles and Ventura counties threatened to push into neighborhoods in the densely populated San Fernando Valley, including one gated community of million-dollar mansions.
But winds subsided enough to let pilots douse the area with water and fire retardant. Backfires and bulldozers were used to clear away the fuel in the flames' path. Reinforcements were sent to help on the ground, and temperatures dropped.
"They saved every one of them," said Bill Peters, a spokesman for the California Forestry Department.
In San Bernardino County, firefighters struggled to defend resort towns high in the mountains. The flames destroyed 20 structures on Strawberry Peak and several homes in Rimforest, and threatened an estimated $3 billion worth of houses in the Crestline, Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear areas, Peters said.
Working on narrow mountain roads, firefighters battled fires along the 20-mile stretch. About 80,000 full-time residents have been evacuated from the mountains since Saturday.
"Just about everything is burning," said William Bagnell, fire chief of the Crest Forest Fire Protection District.
The flames are feeding on millions of dead trees, weakened by drought and killed by a bark beetle infestation. Officials were particularly worried about "crowning," where flames leap from one treetop to another, leaving firefighters on the ground all but powerless to stop them.
"If that occurs, we don't have the capability to put those fires out," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Carol Beckley said. "It will be a firestorm."
California's biggest fire, a blaze of more than 200,000 acres in eastern San Diego County, formed a 45-mile front stretching into Scripps Ranch and Julian, a mountain community renowned for its apple crop. The fire was just miles from merging with a 37,000-acre fire near Escondido.
The two fires have destroyed more than 900 homes. If they joined up, the flames would cut off escape routes and whip up the wind.
"These fires actually create their own weather," said Dave Wheeler, a state Forestry Department spokesman.
On the highway near Julian, high walls of flames lit up a mountain ridge along Lake Cuyamaca. The blaze sounded like an explosion as flames tore across the dry brush and trees.
Thirteen of the deaths over the past few days came as victims tried to flee those two fires.
Glenn Wagner, San Diego County chief medical examiner, said he expects the death toll to rise as crews begin inspecting the hundreds of charred homes.
"This fire was so fast," he said. "I'm sure we're going to find folks who simply never had a chance to get out of their houses."
Some victims died within view of San Vicente Lake, a boating and fishing destination in Ramona. "Could you imagine looking out at all that water in San Vicente Lake and still dying in the fire?" Wagner said.
Hawkins, of the Forest Service, said lunches intended for firefighters on Monday were not delivered until Tuesday morning.
"It's like war. This whole fire has been a war so far," Hawkins said. "What the firefighters are facing is a lack of sleep, a lack of food, a lack of diesel fuel in some cases and a lack of logistical support."
Ken Hale, a state Forestry Department division chief who had been on the fire line for 55 hours, said firefighters even drove to nearby towns to gas up their vehicles and buy fast food. But it is all part of the job, he said.
"As soon as I found out people had died, it changes the entire outlook on the fire. It goes from being an adversary, a worthy adversary, to something that's very deadly, a monster," Hale said as he headed for some sleep.