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California wildfires burn through 600,000 acres

Wind shift helps and hinders firefighters

Sarah Barklow stands in the charred rubble of her home in Claremont.
Sarah Barklow stands in the charred rubble of her home in Claremont.

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CNN's Martin Savidge on the Simi Valley wildfires' shift to the north, threatening Los Angeles County.
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CNN's Miguel Marquez on a sketch of a man authorities want for questioning in San Bernardino County, California.
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CNN's Martin Savidge on evacuations in Simi Valley, California.
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CNN's David Mattingly on efforts to aid those left homeless by fires in San Diego County.
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Emergency Incidents

(CNN) -- An 18-mile-long wall of flames -- just a fraction of the blazes scorching Southern California -- devastated the tiny mountain community of Cuyamaca on Tuesday and bore down on the Gold Rush tourist town of Julian.

The so-called Cedar Fire, perhaps the state's most devastating, breached the town limits of Julian in San Diego County on Tuesday afternoon as 125 fire engines and firefighters positioned themselves around the downtown in a bid to save its historic buildings, some of which date to the 19th century.

The entire community of Cuyamaca burned Tuesday, according to California Department of Forestry spokesman John Hawkins. By late afternoon, some of the buildings in Julian were lost.

With 13 wildfires raging in California from Simi Valley to San Diego, the number of homes destroyed passed 1,900, the charred land totaled more than 600,000 acres and the death toll was 16, fire officials said Tuesday.

Santa Ana winds, at times gusting up to 50 or 60 mph, swept down mountain canyons from the Mexican border to Simi Valley, driving the fires. The winds began to slacken Tuesday, and the fires began following the land's topography, sometimes with devastating results.

The Cedar Fire climbed uphill into Cuyamaca and Julian to consume insect-riddled Eucalyptus bark made explosive by a long drought. That blaze is considered zero percent contained, meaning it has not been stopped on any front, officials said.

Dying Santa Ana winds also caused a wildfire burning in Simi Valley to shift northward Tuesday, moving the enormous flames along a path toward hundreds of homes in the Stevenson Ranch community of Los Angeles County.

The unexpected turn sent thousands of residents fleeing for their lives with only 15 minutes' warning as the fire's front line drew within a mile of the neighborhood, not far from the Magic Mountain theme park and about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Firefighters were able to keep the flames at bay. By Tuesday evening, some residents were returning.

Elsewhere in Southern California, the wind change has been good news for firefighters.

"These are great weather conditions from what we've been having for the last couple of days," Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Mark Kyllingstad said earlier Tuesday. "We are going to be throwing the toolbox at the fire today."

Tim Turner of the California Department of Forestry said firefighters in San Diego County, where at least four fires had burned 300,000 acres, had gotten a much-needed break.

"The weather's in our favor finally," he said. "We're expecting a day of calm winds, and then they'll turn to normal offshore tomorrow. That's good news for everybody."

Full-fledged fight

Forced from their homes during the past three days, tens of thousands of people watched and waited as firefighters battled the blazes.

Twelve people have been killed by fire in San Diego County, most while trying to escape in their cars, and four people died during the weekend in San Bernardino. Two of those were elderly men who died from stress caused by the fires. (Details on deaths)

At least two of the 13 fires have been blamed on arson.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department released a sketch Tuesday of one of two people sought on suspicion of sparking the so-called Old Fire, which has burned nearly 30,000 acres. (Arson fuels anger)

The department is looking for two men in their 20s whom authorities said were seen driving a gray van Saturday morning north of the San Bernardino city limits. Witnesses saw something being thrown into the brush from the van.

The Cedar Fire was started by a lost hunter who lit a signal fire, San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman said Tuesday. He said the hunter did not intend the fire to spread, and that he has been detained.

The U.S. Defense Department is providing military assets to fight the wildfires in California at the request of the National Interagency Fire Center. Four C-130 aircraft configured to drop water or fire-retardant chemicals have been approved to be sent to the area. Eight UH-60 helicopters equipped with water buckets from the California National Guard are deployed.

Firefighters from other parts of California and at least two other states also are helping.

Bush declares major disaster

A firefighting tanker aircraft flies under the pall of smoke above San Bernardino, California.
A firefighting tanker aircraft flies under the pall of smoke above San Bernardino, California.

President Bush declared a major disaster in affected parts of California Monday, opening the way for federal funding for governments, businesses and people affected by the fires.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration made plans to open "one-stop" centers for residents and business owners to file paperwork for emergency loans allowed under the president's disaster declaration.

Firefighters have been unable to bring most of the blazes to even 20 percent containment. Several fires were at zero containment.

The Cedar Fire was perhaps the most devastating. After it ignited Saturday, it consumed 80,000 acres in about 10 hours, and by Tuesday morning had reached 206,000 acres, the largest fire in the state since a blaze scorched 220,000 acres of Ventura County in 1932.

"A fire of this type is not usual," Turner said. "This is an epic fire for San Diego County.".

CNN correspondents Brian Cabell, Frank Buckley, Jeff Flock, Miguel Marquez and Barbara Starr, and producer Stan Wilson, contributed to this report.

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