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Impact of Southern California fires felt in Merced

While it's hundreds of miles away, unbridled fires devastating Southern California are affecting Merced County as local firefighters and soldiers are pressed into service and college students from this area wait for the fire's fury to abate.

Merced Fire Chief Ken Mitten said two more Merced-based state Office of Emergency Services firetrucks left Merced about midnight Sunday, headed somewhere south to do battle with at least 14 wind-fanned wildfires that have stretched from Malibu to the Mexican border. Two strike teams with about 37 personnel from Merced County had been sent earlier to the San Diego area.

Mitten said it is believed the Santa Ana winds that have caused so much grief since Sunday may die down Wednesday, helping firefighters gain ground on the fast-spreading fires. One of Merced's two strike teams has been sent to San Bernardino-Riverside areas while the other group is near San Diego.

Hundreds of homes were reduced to ashes Monday as wildfires blown by fierce desert winds raced across a huge swath of Southern California, forcing a quarter of a million people to flee.

At least one person was killed and dozens injured by more than a dozen blazes that formed a hellish, spidery pattern of luminous orange covering at least 310 square miles of the drought-stricken region.

Fabiola Rivera of Merced said her husband, Sgt. Anthony Rivera of the California Army National Guard, left Merced about 6:30 p.m. Monday enroute to San Diego. Guardsmen are expected to be used to get stubborn and reluctant homeowners to leave their fire-threatened homes as well as prevent looting.

Rivera said she is worried about her 26-year-old husband who spent a year each in Iraq and Korea during six years of active duty in the U.S. Army. She said they were told he could be gone for 10 days but isn't sure how long the deployment actually will be.

"I'm worried about him. I just hope everybody prays for him. It's been really hectic," Rivera said. A Comcast employee, Rivera's Guard unit is based in Turlock.

Sean Blackwood of Merced is a sophomore business major at Pepperdine University. He said he attended several University Ministry gatherings at Malibu Presbyterian Church, one of the casualties of the fires.

Blackwood, 19, said fires destroyed some of the vegetation surrounding the Pepperdine campus but have not struck any campus buildings. The smell of smoke and the presence of ashes are all over and it's quiet on campus as students stay in their dorms, he said. A number of firetrucks are using Alumni Park on campus for helicopter refueling and drafting water from a pond there.

"I think it's horrible, really sad. My thoughts and prayers are with the people fighting the fires. I hope they get them stopped," said Blackwood, a 2005 Buhach Colony High School graduate.

Katie Craig, 19, from Merced is a sophomore art major at Pepperdine. She is stuck off-campus and staying at a friend's home, with access back to the campus blocked for students and staff.

"It's devastating and it's hard to watch on TV. We are trying to stay inside as the air quality is not good. There is smoke all over, everywhere," Craig said.

She said she watched the Malibu Presbyterian Church burn down with members of the congregation's youth staff. Craig has been a student at Pepperdine for about a year. No classes were held Monday and the campus will be closed today as well.

About 100 California Highway Patrol officers enroute to Southern California stopped in Merced near 13th and V streets in early evening Monday for a food and gasoline break.

Sgt. John MacDowell said 100 uniformed officers in 42 units are part of the CHP's Mobile Field Force and will relieve weary police, sheriff's deputies and local patrolmen who have been part of the fire effort.

MacDowell said the Sacramento and Northern California CHP officers were deployed at 5 p.m. from Sacramento. He said the field force responds to civil disturbances and natural disasters and was deployed to help during Hurricane Katrina.

Atwater Fire Chief Ed Banks said local firefighters have been assigned to the Harris fire and are very close to the Mexican border.

Mitten, Merced's fire chief, said no local firefighters have been hurt battling the SoCal fires. He said today is expected to be a heavy day for crews battling the fires.

Blackwood said Pepperdine students spent much of Sunday morning in the school's cafeteria or gym, with a worship service followed by lunch. He participates in University Ministries and attended several meetings at the ill-fated Malibu Presbyterian Church.

While no campus buildings have burned, Craig said several cars burned in a university parking lot. Pepperdine is located west of Los Angeles.

Firefighters -- who lost valuable time trying to persuade stubborn homeowners to leave -- were almost completely overwhelmed as gale-force winds gusting to 70 mph scattered embers onto dry brush, spawning multiple fires. California officials pleaded for help from fire departments in other states.

"A lot of people are going to lose their homes today," said San Diego Fire Capt. Lisa Blake.

At least 14 fires were burning in Southern California, said Patti Roberts, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

From San Diego to Malibu, more than 150 miles up the Pacific coast, more than 265,000 people in numerous communities were warned to leave their homes.

More than 250,000 were told to flee in San Diego County alone, where hundreds of patients were moved by school bus and ambulance from a hospital and nursing homes, many still in their hospital gowns and wheelchairs. Some carried their medical records in large zip-lock plastic bags.

In the Lake Arrowhead area, a two-front fire destroyed 128 homes in the same mountain resort community where hundreds were lost four years earlier. Air tankers that had been grounded because of high winds were back in the air fighting those fires by early evening.

One of the planes was a converted DC-10 airliner, the largest air tanker in existence. It quickly went to work laying down a huge curtain of flame retardant.

Meanwhile, in Orange County, a 1,049-inmate jail was evacuated because of heavy smoke. The prisoners were taken by bus to other lockups.

In San Diego, where at least four separate fires were burning, more than 194,000 reverse 911 calls -- calls from county officials to residents -- were made, alerting people to evacuations, said county Supervisor Ron Roberts.

"We have literally the perfect firestorm going on," Roberts said. "We're a long ways from containment if there is such a thing given these winds."

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or The Associated Press contributed to this report.