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Seeing is Believing

Andy Egenes said the air smells "like charcoal," and it's impossible right now to even drive your car with the windows down.

Egenes, a native of Liberty who has lived in southern California since July 2006, is one of the many who are helpless to do anything but watch wildfires consume vast amounts of acreage and reduce hundreds of everyday homes and million-dollar mansions to little more than heaping piles of ashes.

The California wildfires are raging from the Mexican border to north of Los Angeles, leaving in their wake more than 500,000 homeless a number that may approach 1 million before the devastation ends.

Firefighters expected no break from the winds fueling the fires until midday Thursday. At least 17 wildfires have scorched about 425 square miles from north of Los Angeles to southeast of San Diego since the weekend. Three of those fires were added to the list Tuesday.

"It will not end ... until it reaches the ocean or the winds turn around," San Diego Fire Battalion Chief Bruce Cartelli told The Associated Press.

Jason Hilfrink, a Quincy native who lives in Burbank and practices law in Thousand Oaks, said day-to-day life marches on unless you happen to be within 10 miles of one of the fires. That's when the term "evacuation" becomes relevant.

Both Hilfrink's home and office are between 15 and 20 miles from the nearest blazes.

"It's interesting," Hilfrink said. "For the most part, everything is pretty much normal. The only real disruption is in the traffic patterns."

Hilfrink said some of the major arteries have had to close or be altered. He said what is normally a 90-minute trip between his home and office is now taking about three hours.

"And that's only for about 30 to 35 miles," Hilfrink said.

Hilfrink, who has lived in southern California since 1999, says these are the worst fires he has seen. He said some of the gusting winds that are fanning the flames have reached a "hurricane-force 108 mph," according to local news reports.

Hilfrink said much of the sky is a hazy blackish brown with considerable falling ash blown by the never-ending winds.

"It smells a lot like a big bonfire," Hilfrink said.

Egenes lives in Irvine, a little more than 10 miles from the nearest fires. He is a project controls administrator for an environmental and energy consulting firm.

"I have a second-floor apartment and can look out and see the mountains burning and homes going up in flames, but I'm in no danger," Egenes said. "I have to keep my windows closed because of the (smell and ash). This is the first time I've experienced anything like this since moving out here."

Qualcomm Stadium, which houses the San Diego Chargers of the NFL, is currently the home for 10,000 of the evacuees in the San Diego area. The U.S. Navy ordered sailors out of barracks near San Diego and onto ships to make room for additional evacuees.

President Bush issued an emergency declaration Tuesday for seven California counties, clearing the way for federal disaster relief. Bush's declaration covers the same seven counties that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cited Monday: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura.

Emergency officials asked for food and water for evacuees and told those still in their homes to cut electrical use so the power grid is not strained.

Ironically, Egenes had been on a business trip to Seattle just prior to returning home and encountering the wildfire problem.

"It did nothing but rain for the three days I was in Seattle," Egenes said. "I was thinking when I was there, 'What a horrible place to live with all of this rain.' That rain looks pretty good right now."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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