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SAN DIEGO - Faced with unrelenting winds whipping wildfires into a frenzy across Southern California, firefighters conceded defeat on many fronts Tuesday to an unstoppable force that has chased more than 500,000 people away.
Unless the shrieking Santa Ana winds subside, and that's not expected for at least another day, fire crews say they can do little more than try to wait it out and react — tamping out spot fires and chasing ribbons of airborne embers to keep new fires from flaring.
"If it's this big and blowing with as much wind as it's got, it'll go all the way to the ocean before it stops," said San Diego Fire Capt. Kirk Humphries. "We can save some stuff but we can't stop it."
Tentacles of unpredictable, shifting flame have burned across nearly 600 square miles, killing one person, destroying more than 1,800 homes and prompting the biggest evacuation in California history, from north of Los Angeles, through San Diego to the Mexican border.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the flames were threatening 68,000 more homes.
"We have had an unfortunate situation that we've had three things come together: very dry areas, very hot weather and then a lot of wind," Schwarzenegger said. "And so this makes the perfect storm for a fire."
In Rancho Santa Fe, a suburb north of San Diego, houses burned just yards from where fire crews fought to contain flames engulfing other properties. In the mountain community of Lake Arrowhead, cabins and vacation homes went up in flames with no fire crews in sight.
"These winds are so strong, we're not trying to fight this fire," said firefighter Jim Gelrud, an engineer from Vista, Calif. "We're just trying to save the buildings."
More than a dozen wildfires blowing across Southern California since Sunday have also injured more than 45 people, including 21 firefighters. The U.S. Forest Service earlier reported a fire death in Los Angeles County's Santa Clarita area, but officials said Tuesday that information was erroneous.
In San Diego County, authorities placed evacuation calls to more than 346,000 homes, said Luis Monteagudo, a spokesman for the county's emergency effort. Based on census and other county data, 560,000 people were ordered to leave, said Ron Roberts, chairman of the San Diego Board of Supervisors.
"It's basically a mass migration here in San Diego County. The numbers we're seeing are staggering," said Luis Monteagudo, a spokesman for the county's emergency effort.
By Tuesday evening, some 50,000 people in San Diego were being allowed to return homes near the ocean as well as portions of the city of Poway, Roberts said. No homes were lost in these neighborhoods.
President Bush, who planned to visit the region Thursday, declared a federal emergency for seven counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts.
The sweeping devastation was reminiscent of blazes that tore through Southern California four years ago, killing 22 and destroying 3,640 homes.
The ferocity of the Santa Ana winds in 2003 forced crews to discard their traditional strategy and focus on keeping up with the fire and putting out spot blazes that threatened homes.
Fire crews were especially concerned about dense eucalyptus groves in Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe, fearing the highly flammable trees could turn neighborhoods prized for their secluded serenity into potential tinderboxes.
The usual tactic is to surround a fire on two sides and try to choke it off. But with fires whipped by gusts that have surpassed 100 mph, that strategy doesn't work because embers can be swept miles ahead of the fire's front line. In those cases, crews must keep 10 to 30 feet back from the flames or risk their own lives, Los Angeles County firefighter Daryl Parish said.
Added Rocklin Fire Department Capt. Martin Holm: "We do what we can. A life's a lot more important than a house."
Any flame longer than 8 feet is considered unstoppable, and even water and fire retardant will evaporate before they reach the ground, said Gordon Schmidt, a retired U.S. Forest Service deputy director of fire management.
"In these situations, the strategy generally is to fall back," he said. "You pick and choose your priorities in terms of what you can protect. Instead of trying to stop the fire, you try to prevent it from burning resources."
In the suburbs north of San Diego, firefighters did just that as fingers of flame pulsed across a 10-lane freeway and raced up a hill on the opposite side in just seconds. The fire engulfed white-washed homes at the top of the ridge.
Groves of eucalyptus trees exploded in the heat in one ritzy cul-de-sac in Rancho Santa Fe, sending off a scattered popping that sounded like machine gun fire.
Firefighters parked their rigs in the driveways of the most threatened homes and hosed down fences and open space around homes as a blood-red sun set over a sky choked with smoke and falling ash.
Firefighters battling two fast-moving blazes in Lake Arrowhead, in the San Bernardino Mountains about 130 miles east of Los Angeles, were also taxed by steep terrain, winding roads and a forest packed with dead or dying trees.
More than 200 homes burned in Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs, fire officials said.
At least three times in the past two days, fire crews have been forced to "pull off, and wait for things to calm down" because of danger, said San Bernardino National Forest Ranger Kurt Winchester.
"In a lot of places, you just have to back off and let the fire go," he said. "There's nothing we can do."
The one person confirmed dead was identified as Thomas Varshock of Tecate, a town on the U.S. side of the border southeast of San Diego. He died over the weekend after he ignored warnings to evacuate and authorities left to take care of other evacuations, the San Diego Conty Medical Examiner's Office said.
The medical examiner's office also listed four other deaths as connected to the wildfires because they occurred during or after evacuations. Three people were in their 90s and died from natural causes; the fourth was a woman who died after falling at a restaurant.
In Rancho Santa Fe, neighbors tried to protect a friend's home with a garden hose Monday night as flames raced up a ridge directly behind the house. Yards away, an engine crew kept watch as another home, already fully engulfed, burned to the ground.
"We told the firemen about (this house) and we put out a few hot spots," said friend Gary Rich. "They told us once they put out that house, they'd come over here."
But, Rich said, encroaching flames were making him nervous and he might leave before then.
Fighting a gusty blaze also puts the firefighters in harm's way. At least twice in the last two days, firefighters have had to unfurl their emergency fire shelters — small fire-resistant tents to shield them when they can't escape a fire.
Weather conditions only grew worse, with temperatures across Southern California about 10 degrees above average. Temperatures were in the 90s by mid-afternoon and wind gusts up to 60 mph were expected in mountains and canyons.
In the San Diego suburb of Del Dios, fire completely destroyed one home but seemed to touch other items at random. Two lawn chairs and an umbrella were left in a burnt, melted heap on the patio. But behind the house, near a murky brown swimming pool, two chaise lounges and a four-foot-tall decorative fountain survived unscathed.
J.C. Playford, an evacuee from the nearby community of Ramona, surveyed the damage and wondered whether his own home was still standing.
"I've got two reports, one person told me it's gone, and one person said it's still there," he said, "So I have no idea."
Associated Press writers Chelsea J. Carter, Jeremiah Marquez, Daisy Nguyen, Robert Jablon and Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles, Martha Mendoza in Lake Arrowhead, Jacob Adelman in Santa Clarita, Elliot Spagat and Scott Lindlaw in San Diego, and Pauline Arrillaga in Del Mar contributed to this report.