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Tens of Thousands Evacuated in California as Firefighters Battle Wildfires - 2003-10-29

Eleven thousand firefighters are battling wildfires that are raging in California. The blazes have destroyed more than 1,500 houses and killed at least 16 people. Another two people have died across the border in Mexico. Thousands of homes near Los Angeles and San Diego are still threatened.

A blanket of smoke covers both cities. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes or been evacuated. San Diego Sheriff Bill Kolender announced new evacuations Tuesday. "We are advising residents in Julian to prepare to evacuate. We have ordered a mandatory evacuation from Pine Hills," he said. "And we're also looking at evacuating the Henshaw Lake area."

Many other communities in four California counties remain under threat.

Serious fires continue to burn near Los Angeles. In San Bernardino to the east, hundreds of homes have been destroyed, but firefighters say diminished winds on Tuesday helped their efforts.

A hunter's signal flare started one of the fires near San Diego. Authorities believe another fire in San Bernardino was started by arsonists.

Bill Peters of the California Department of Forestry says they face a stiff penalty if caught and convicted, under California's tough arson law. "And that law is, if you commit an arson like this, where there is this massive destruction, you're going to get 25 years in prison, no parole, no second chance," he said.

The most pressing concern for California firefighters is protecting property from the advancing flames. Two neighboring states, Arizona and Nevada, have sent firefighters and equipment for the effort.