High winds that stoked flames and kept water tanker planes from taking off are hampering efforts to more aggressively combat the fires raging through Southern California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Tuesday.
The governor praised efforts by local, state and federal authorities and dismissed criticisms that the state had not implemented rapid-response protocols implemented after the 2003 wildfires.
A dozen wildfires raging across the state have destroyed more than 370,000 acres and left more than 300,000 residents fleeing the carnage as gale force winds and dry conditions fueled the inferno for a third day, according to estimates from various wire reports.
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Schwarzenegger said 1,500 homes remain in danger and called on people in the area to evacuate.
"If you're told to evacuate, evacuate. Safety is the most important thing," he told locals.
He said he was in constant communication with federal authorities to ensure aid was rapidly deployed.
"The state is there to help you. I'm here to put a spotlight -- to get state and federal help as quickly as possible," he said.
Schwarzenegger said that more than 300,000 people have been evacuated and some 8,000 of those people had sought refuge at the Qualcomm stadium in San Diego County.
"We have to think about all the little things that fall through the cracks. Is there enough baby formula, for the babies, diapers, toilet paper, cots," he said.
Officials, he said, were working to ensure the elderly and infirm received medical aid.
He thanked the 6,000 firefighters for their "courage and hard work, working 24 hours round the clock," and said he had "great hopes that the fires will be put out as quickly as possible."
Entire communities, mostly in San Diego County, have been evacuated, leaving streets eerily quite as firefighters, short on resources and replacement personnel, battle the blazes.
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Despite the damage caused to an estimated 1,000 homes from Santa Barbara to San Diego, only two people have been confirmed dead thus far and 34 people seriously injured, according to the Associated Press.
FEMA Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson echoed Schwarzenegger's comments about the cooperation seen between federal, state and local agencies.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration learned important lessons from the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and is applying those lessons to battling the fires in Southern California, Johnson said.
"There is day and there is night," said about the differences between the federal government's response to the California fires and Katrina.
Johnson said President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff are communicating with regional and state officials, and federal agencies are cooperating to ensure aid reaches the scorched California coastline.
President Bush is scheduled to visit the area on Thursday, according to the AP.
Qualcomm stadium, the largest makeshift shelter for evacuees in San Diego County, has a capacity for 10,000 people, but there were 19 other shelters in the area. Johnson said there are enough supplies in the San Diego area for the current demand, but that FEMA is bringing in more.
The White House has pledged 1,600 National Guard personnel, 1,239 federal firefighters, 9,400 cots and eight assistance grants.
Monstrous Fire Like 'Nuclear Winter'
One firefighter called the raging fires a "nuclear winter"; another called it "Armageddon."
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders told people to "stay at home, stay off the freeways" so fire crews and evacuees could keep moving as the winds changed course, The AP reported.
Tens of thousands in San Diego County, including elderly evacuees from nursing homes, spent the night in the Qualcomm sports stadium, as did thousands of pets and horses, according to the AP.
State officials are taking a two-pronged approach, concentrating on both firefighting efforts and providing for the growing number of evacuees, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told the press.
Santa Ana winds, often called "devil winds," are being blamed for stoking the fires. The winds form from air circulating over Utah and Nevada. The air heats up as it comes down from mountains and then swoops into Southern California.
That hot, dry air whips across canyons that act as wind tunnels, ratcheting the wind up to 100 mph. Add that to one of the driest years on record in California and the wind can turn a tiny spark into a deadly firestorm.
The Forest Service has identified 14 separate fires across the region, the largest nicknamed "witch" and covering 145,000 acres.
No Break for Firefighters
Fire officials say more houses are burning than they have people to fight them, and the forecast is not good — more dry, windy weather is expected today.
The winds have been so strong that many of the firefighting helicopters dropping water and flame retardant have been grounded.
Some of the worst fires continue to rage around San Diego. All 70 members of the San Miguel Fire Battalion have been fighting a 22,000-acre fire burning near the Mexico border.
The firefighters have worked two straight days in grueling conditions, wearing more than 30 pounds of equipment to battle 1,000-degree flames and eating and drinking only what they can carry.
"This is what we do," said San Miguel Fire Chief Andy Menshek. "This is our fire season. This is our community."
At least four firefighters have been injured fighting the San Diego fires, two of them critically, and 22 civilian injuries have been reported, many of them to illegal immigrants, because the area is a popular border crossing.
Firefighters will be working to control the blazes for weeks to come, but they are trying to stay positive.
"As long as the lives are saved, we're cool," said one firefighter.
Burned Homes, Families Scramble
The mass evacuations have left hundreds of thousands of families homeless. Many hotels reported a 100 percent occupancy rate, and shelters are jammed.
Officials say that 6,771 people have registered to stay at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, and 4,000 more are taking refuge in the parking lot.
Staying at the stadium is a last resort for many, and no one is being turned away. Officials also report that volunteers and donations are pouring in.
Most of the people staying at the stadium don't seem angry, just happy to be alive, reported ABC News' Mike von Fremd.
Amie Hoffman, who is staying in the stadium, was trying to pack up her family's possessions as the flames approached their home.
"I just put water in the truck, the kids in the truck, the dogs in the truck, and I just left everything else," Hoffman said. "I just looked around and I thought, none of this is very important. I got what's important."
Dan and Annie Restifo of San Bernardo, Calif., inspected the charred remains of their home this morning.
"I was shocked and I think I was numb the whole time. But now it's finally hit — everything is gone," Annie Restifo said today on "Good Morning America." "There's a lot of things I wish I would have brought, but that's in the past. We have to move on."
The family has experienced small acts of kindness from others in the community. A woman was standing behind the Restifos in line at Wal-Mart and asked whether she could do anything to help them.
The woman later showed up at the Restifos' hotel room with a suitcase full of clothing for the family's 16-year-old daughter.
With their home evacuated, the Restifos and their children were offered a free room at the Carlsbad Inn through Sunday. They say they have no idea what comes next for them.
"We're taking every minute as it comes. We don't know," Annie said.