Wildfires continued to burn out of control across Southern California for a third day on Tuesday as 500,000 people fled the San Diego area, and firefighters made a desperate stand to save a mountain town ringed by flames.
More than a dozen fires blazed from the horse country north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border 150 miles (240 km) to the south, torching 1,500 houses and other buildings, blotting out the sun with smoke and raining ash on the streets.
Most of the destroyed homes were in the San Diego area, where three major wildfires burned unchecked and half a million people were ordered to leave in what may be the largest U.S. evacuation since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.
At least five deaths were reported, three of them elderly evacuees from the San Diego area, and more than three dozen others had been injured, including 18 firefighters.
As the firestorms raged into the evening, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked President George W. Bush to upgrade California's wildfires to a "major disaster," which would trigger federal help.
Bush already issued a declaration of emergency early Tuesday. But Schwarzenegger told him in a new letter that "this disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capability of the state and local governments."
Schwarzenegger earlier told CNBC he foresees a "tremendous economic impact" from the damage inflicted by the wildfires.
Speaking to CNBC's Scott Cohn, the Republican leader estimated that damages and losses to businesses, homes and property, especially about the San Diego area, will likely amount to "hundreds of millions of dollars."