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Wildfires Devastate Large Areas of Southern California - 2003-10-27

Wildfires have killed at least 13 people in Southern California, 11 of them in San Diego, and destroyed more than 800 houses. The largest blaze is threatening homes on the outskirts of San Diego, and fires are scorching areas north and east of Los Angeles.

In San Diego, a city of one million at the southern edge of the state, schools are closed and police are asking commuters to stay off the highways.

Two blazes near San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles, have merged to create a wall of flames that is threatening houses there.

President Bush has promised federal help. "We want to put them out. This is a devastating fire, and it's a dangerous fire. And, we're prepared to help in any way we can," he said.

Governor Gray Davis has declared a state of emergency in four California counties. Monday, he urged the president to make the promised help available quickly.

He said a seven-year-old girl had shown him the remains of her family's home on Sunday evening. "These folks were being amazingly brave last night, but I'm sure when the shock wears off, they will want the federal government there with checks to help them rebuild that house," he said.

Despite the devastation, many homeowners in the afflicted areas have been lucky. The fire in Simi Valley, northwest of Los Angeles, has destroyed at least 14 houses, but this man, who thought his home was lost, says he was fortunate.

"The flames were 80 feet tall [24 meters], and it totally engulfed the house, my house and my neighbor's house. And we watched it for 15 minutes from across the street. And I couldn't see the house, and I knew it was gone," he said.

But, he says, when the flames moved on, he saw his house had suffered little damage.

Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn says his city is stretching resources as best it can. He worries that the fire on the northern edge of the city could enter its suburbs.

"At the same time, we are redeploying our resources in the San Fernando Valley, so that we're ready, in case we need to protect property, in case this fire changes direction," he said.

Fire officials say winds up to 80 kilometers per hour and hot dry weather are likely to continue well into the week, making their job more difficult.