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Bush to Visit California as Wildfires Force Evacuation of Homes


Nearly a million people have fled their homes as more than a dozen fires continue to burn in Southern California. At least two people have died. President Bush will visit California Thursday. Mike O'Sullivan reports, fire has destroyed more than 1,000 homes in San Diego, and hundreds in other parts of the state.

High gusty winds and hot, dry weather are fanning the wildfires, which have broken out from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara, north of Los Angeles.

President Bush signed an emergency declaration late Monday to authorize federal aid and allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts.

Mr. Bush expressed sympathy for the people forced from their houses. "All of us across this nation are concerned for the families who have lost their homes, and the many families who have been evacuated from their homes. We send our prayers and thoughts with those who have been affected, and we send the help of the federal government, as well," he said.

San Diego, in the southern-most part of the state, was hardest-hit by the fires, and National Guard troops are helping with evacuation and crowd control there. The Department of Defense has agreed to send air tankers equipped to drop water and fire retardant chemicals, but on the third day of the blazes, high winds are limiting flights in many areas.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff spoke of federal efforts on Tuesday, just before he boarded a plane to fly with other officials to California. "We have been moving cots, blankets, other supplies into the area of San Diego so that we can handle any necessity for additional sheltering capacity. We have also moved air assets to be poised to take flight when we do have the opportunity to deal with the fire, once the winds begin to die down," he said.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that among the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, is the need for improved communications, and she said the lesson is being applied. FEMA's response was harshly criticized in the aftermath of Katrina.

People forced from their homes are taking shelter in sports stadiums, community centers, fairgrounds and schools, and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders asked residents in unaffected places to keep streets clear for emergency responders and people fleeing their houses. "Please stay at home today, if you can. Stay off the freeways. Allow our emergency vehicles and people needing to evacuate to move around freely, and please stay off your cell phones," he said.

Officials are also urging residents to obey mandatory evacuation orders, where they are given. Some have refused and have stayed with their homes to try and fight the fires themselves.

High temperatures and strong winds are expected to continue.

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