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Huge Wildfires Merge, Continue Pushing West

Two out-of-control East County wildfires combined into one today, creating an inferno that could prove more destructive than the 2003 Cedar Fire, which charred 280,278 acres and killed 15 people, officials
said.

By this afternoon, crews had yet to gain any containment of the wind-
whipped blaze, which was heading to the west and south, toward Mira Mesa,
Carmel Mountain Ranch, 4S Ranch, Harbison Canyon, Peutz Valley and the western edges of Alpine, according to the state Department of Forestry, or Cal Fire.

Among the hard-hit areas was northern Rancho Bernardo, where as many as 300 residences fell to the flames, according to a group of firefighters taking a breather at a strip mall on West Bernardo Drive in the early evening.

One of the crew members, Rob Lukaszewicz, described the conditions he
and his colleagues were facing as ``twice as bad'' as the Cedar Fire.

``We triaged the houses out into what we could save and what we
couldn't,'' Lukaszewicz said.

By 6:30 p.m., the so-called Witch Creek Fire also had claimed 70 houses
in Escondido, about 50 in Poway and six in Rancho Santa Fe, Cal Fire reported.

Another hard-hit area was Ramona. All of its roughly 36,000 residents
were ordered to evacuate yesterday as the flames swept into that area, leveling a number of structures.

Overnight, the fire merged with another conflagration that had erupted
at roughly the same time in the Pasqual Valley area.

The blaze forced evacuations at Fallbrook and Pomerado hospitals, said
Ron Lane, head of the county Office of Emergency Services, and most schools were closed.

In the early afternoon, the San Diego Police Department issued a
mandatory evacuation announcement for most of Scripps Ranch, an upscale
community that was devastated by the Cedar Fire.

The area subject to the order was bounded by Beeler Canyon Road on the
north, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar on the south, Interstate 15 on the west and state Route 76 on the east.

No residents would be allowed to enter the area, SDPD spokeswoman Monica Munoz said.

During a late-afternoon briefing, however, city officials stressed that
Scripps Ranch had so far escaped damage.

Meanwhile, another mandatory evacuation order was in effect for
communities north of State Route 56, south of Del Dios Highway and east of
Interstate 5.

To the east, residents of Crest, Harbison Canyon and Pitts Valley were
encouraged to prepare to clear out of their homes and to do so immediately if they believed they might be in any danger.

Poway officials evacuated the northeast part of the city and declared a
local emergency as the Witch Creek Fire spread east.

Residents east of Espola Road, from Lake Poway Road to Valle Verde Road,
have been told to evacuate. The order included High Valley, Bridlewood
Country Estates, Stoneridge, Heritage, Old Coach and Old Winery neighborhoods.

The sheriff's department notified thousands of households of evacuation
orders through a ``reverse 911'' telephone notification system.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said late this afternoon that 1,200
National Guard troops were on the way to provide law enforcement and
firefighting support.

Ron Roberts, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said Navy and
Coast Guard helicopter crews had pitched in to help battle the fire. The mayor of Tijuana also offered to help out in any way he could.

The city of San Diego had 450 firefighters and 98 trucks committed to
the fire, at one point leaving just one truck crew remaining to cover rest of
the city, a fire department spokesman said.

As evening approached, 34,000 San Diego Gas & Electric customers were
without power, Roberts said.

The blaze, which blanketed much of the North County with smoke, was
reported about 12:40 p.m. yesterday near Deer Canyon and Julian roads in the Witch Creek area, according to California Highway Patrol.

The San Pasqual Valley Fire started at roughly the same time as the
Witch Creek Fire, when a transformer exploded near Highway 78 and Bandy Canyon Road east of the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

By late this morning, Interstate 15 was fully shut down between state
Route 56 and Via Rancho Parkway, and from SR-76 to near the San Diego-Riverside county line, according to police.

State Route 78 was closed in the area of the fire, as was Old Julian
Highway between Ramona and Santa Ysabel. Highway 79, north of the reservation, was also closed, and traffic was being directed to SR-76.

Shelters were set up at Qualcomm Stadium, Santana High School, Poway
Community Park, Poway Girls & Boys Club, C38o Community Center, Mission Hills High School, Mira Mesa High School, Escondido High School, the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Steele Canyon High School and San Marcos High School.

Sanders encouraged residents directed to leave their homes to heed the
call promptly.

``Please, if you are asked to evacuate, leave the area,'' he said.

Yesterday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in
seven Southern California counties, including San Diego. The proclamation
allows the state Office of Emergency Services to deploy personnel and equipment to assist in the various firefights.

The Witch Creek Fire was one of the worst of 14 blazes burning across
the seven-county region, and among about a half-dozen spreading through various parts of San Diego County.

``This is a tragic day for San Diego County and for California,''
Schwarzenegger said after being briefed on the San Diego County fires earlier today.

``The devastating fires in this county have killed already one person
and injured four firefighters. Maria and my thoughts (and) prayers are with the
families of the victims.''

The Witch Creek Fire primarily has been fueled by thick, old brush just
outside the burn area of the Cedar Fire, considered one of the worst wildfires
in state history.

That conflagration, which broke out the evening of Oct. 25, 2003,
destroyed more than 2,200 homes and caused $1.06 billion in insured losses.

A hunter, Sergio Martinez of West Covina, admitted setting that blaze to
signal for help after he became lost in the Kesslar Flats area.

Martinez was sentenced to six months in community confinement. He was
also ordered to perform 960 hours of community service and pay $150 a month to the U.S. Forest Service for five years, with the money to go toward training hunters.

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