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Tens of thousands flee infernos

An explosive chain of Southern California wildfires has triggered the largest evacuation in state history, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes as weary firefighters struggle to slow the inferno that consumed more than 267,000 acres.

In San Diego County, fires spurred the evacuation of 300,000 people, 10 percent of the county's population.

"There's been a mass exodus," said Luis Monteagudo, a spokesman for the county. "Some roads are grid- locked. Emotions are on edge. We are going through something unprecedented at this point."

Across Southern California, at least 14 fires rampaged through seven counties. Fanned by ferocious winds and feeding on vegetation parched by drought, the fires Monday blazed from Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border. One death was confirmed, and dozens of people were injured, including firefighters.

More than a dozen people were hospitalized with burns and smoke inhalation, including four firefighters, three of whom were listed in critical condition.

Firefighters described desperate conditions that are sure to get worse, with higher temperatures and high wind forecast for today.

Soon after nightfall Monday, fire officials announced that 500 homes and 100 commercial properties had been destroyed by a fire in northern San Diego County that exploded to 145,000 acres, said Roxanne Provaznik, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

A pair of wildfires consumed 133 homes in the Lake Arrowhead resort area in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles, authorities said.

Hundreds of patients were moved by school bus and ambulance from a hospital and nursing homes, some in hospital gowns and wheelchairs. Some carried their medical records in clear plastic bags.

A 1,049-inmate jail in Orange County was evacuated because of heavy smoke. The inmates were bused to other lockups.

Malibu residents Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer and Victoria Principal were among those forced to flee over the weekend, their publicists said.

In San Diego County, more than 200,000 reverse 911 calls -- calls from county officials to residents -- alerted residents to evacuations, county Supervisor Ron Roberts said.

10,000 turn up at stadium

About 10,000 of them ended up at Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL's Chargers, where thousands of people huddled in eerie silence during the day Monday, staring at muted TV news reports of the wildfires. A lone concession stand served coffee and doughnuts.

Many gathered in the parking lot with their pets, which were banned from the stadium.

Gov. Schwarzenegger arrived later Monday to a more festive evening atmosphere, with live music and mountains of catered food. The crowd hooted and hollered as he passed through, and Schwarzenegger later declared that the people of this makeshift city "are very happy."

The number of evacuees exceeds California's previous record, when 120,000 people were displaced in Northern California during the 1997 floods.

In Los Angeles County, four fires ate through more than 80,000 acres, destroying at least 24 homes, a church and numerous outbuildings and injuring eight people.

"The sky was just red. Everywhere I looked was red, glowing. Law enforcement came barreling in with police cars with loudspeakers telling everyone to get out now," said Ronnie Leigh, 55, who fled her Santa Clarita mobile home in northern Los Angeles County as smoke darkened the sky over a nearby ridge line.

Firefighters, who lost valuable time trying to persuade stubborn homeowners to leave, were almost overwhelmed as gale-force winds gusting to 70 mph scattered embers onto dry brush, spawning multiple fires in the same area.

Tom Sollie, 49, ignored evacuation orders in Rancho Bernardo to help his San Diego County neighbors soak roofs. His home was untouched, but he watched a neighbor's house reduced to nothing but the chimney. "If we weren't here, the whole neighborhood would go up," he said. "There just aren't enough firetrucks around."

Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the seven counties, opening the way for government aid, and he said the California National Guard will make 1,500 guardsmen available to support the firefighters in the south. The troops include 200 patrolling the Mexico border.

"It is a tragic time for California," he said Monday afternoon.

California has asked nearby states to send 50 strike teams, each with five engines, said Eric Lamoureux, a spokesman with the state Office of Emergency Services. The state is expecting more planes from National Guard forces in three states to arrive over the next few days, Lamoureux said.

The federal government planned to send six water-dropping aircraft today, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

The fires were reminiscent of those in late October and early November of 2003, when flames in many of the same areas killed 22 people and destroyed 3,640 homes.

"It was nuclear winter. It was like Armageddon. It looked like the end of the world," said Mitch Mendler, a San Diego firefighter, as he and his crew stopped at a shopping center parking lot to refill their water truck from a hydrant near a restaurant.

All San Diego police officers and detectives were ordered to return to work to help move people to safety and handle fire-related emergencies.

Smoggy haze lingered

A state-run evacuee shelter was established at the Del Mar Fairgrounds north of San Diego in Solana Beach.

By Monday evening, the shelter was full. Hundreds of people milled about as wind whipped the palm trees and an ominous pall blanketed the fairground.

Many of the evacuees wore face masks. Even inside the buildings, a smoggy haze lingered.

Nora Hileman was waiting for the bus bringing her mother, Gloria, to arrive from a nursing home in Rancho Bernardo. She'd been waiting three hours for her mother, who is recovering from knee surgery.

Hileman recalled her agony as she awaited word of her mom's situation: "I was watching TV, and was like 'Please, please, don't burn Rancho Bernardo.' It charred it."

Nearby, the Burtons were sitting on the floor, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, waiting for word of what became of their house in Rancho Tenaquitos. With just a half-hour's notice, Kate Burton crammed her four kids and two dogs in her car and headed for the shelter.

Burton said she didn't evacuate after the area's devastating Cedar fire in 2003, but her attitude changed after watching the effects of Hurricane Katrina on TV: "I learned we can't be complacent."

Sacramento Bee staff writers Todd Milbourn, Ryan Lillis, Dorothy Korber and Carrie Peyton Dahlberg and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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