U.S. News

California Wildfire Damages Pegged at $1 Billion


Firefighters battling 15 fires across Southern California got a break from slowing winds Wednesday, but major blazes burned unchecked for a fourth day after forcing the largest evacuation in California's modern history.

Some 1,300 homes have been lost in San Diego county, the most critical area, and an official estimated damages would exceed $1 billion.

"Based on initial estimates, just the homes damaged will be over $1 billion," Ron Lane, San Diego County emergency services director, told a news conference.

Two big fires merged in the county and covered more than 200,000 acres, half of the total burned area in California.

More than 500,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in California.

"We have several tremendous fires still going on," San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said Wednesday.

The Los Angeles County area showed major progress against blazes, and, although mountain fires continued to burn, firefighters expressed hope that Wednesday would be the turning point.

"The wind today, we hope, is not going to be nearly as drastic as it was yesterday," firefighter Jim Christian told local television.

'Major Disaster'

Chris Carlson

Despite the wide-scale devastation, loss of life has been minimal. One person was killed in San Diego Sunday, while four other deaths were reported among the evacuees.

Around 18 firefighters have been injured out of the 10,000 on the fire lines.

San Diego and federal authorities moved to organize the largest evacuation in largest evacuation in the state's recorded history, with the New Orleans debacle of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath heavy on their minds.

"We're going to make sure that this operation runs as smoothly as possible, given the size of this disaster," David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told NBC's Today Show.

President Bush Wednesday upgraded the fires in seven Southern California counties to a "major disaster," triggering extra federal help for families affected. He was scheduled to make a trip to the region Thursday.

Fourteen thousand evacuees spent a second night at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, where the National Football League's San Diego Chargers play.

"I'm worried for my baby, my house, my kids, everything," said Ana Ramirez, 30 and pregnant, who was taking shelter at the stadium with her 4-year-old daughter.

Early Tuesday, the heavily populated northern part of the county continued at the mercy of the hot winds and flames, and new flare-ups were reported at the sprawling Marine base of Camp Pendleton, one of the largest in the United States and home to 60,000 people.

Wildfire Facts

  • 16 active fires from Los Angeles County to the Mexican border
  • More than 500,000 people evacuated, largest in California history
  • More than 2,170 homes lost, 87,600 structures threatened state-wide
  • More than 14,000 people in 38 shelters
  • Six people dead, around 40 injured, including at least 18 firefighters
  • 363,000 acres (146,900 hectares or 570 sq miles) burned
  • Seven Southern California counties declared disaster areas
  • $1 billion estimated damages to homes in San Diego County alone
  • Hot winds gusting up to 40 to 50 mph
  • About 10,000 firefighters battling flames

Sources: California Office of Emergency Services; San Diego City Hall, San Diego County.