Southern California Inferno | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: October 24, 2007

Southern California Inferno

Campuses remain closed as San Diego battles blazes
Department: ACS News | Collection: Safety
Satellite view of California wildfires.
Satellite view of California wildfires.

Today, San Diego-area universities and schools remained closed, as more than 800,000 people in Southern California fled their homes, seeking safety from an advancing, ??devastating series of fires.

Though the campuses themselves weren't in the path of the fires, poor air quality and the huge numbers of faculty, staff, and students affected by the blazes prompted the closures.

"It is certainly possible that some faculty and staff have lost houses, but I don't know for sure yet," says Robert E. Continetti, chair of the University of California, San Diego, chemistry department. "The closure has nominally been for air quality, but the entire region is heavily impacted

K.C. Nicolau, chair of the chemistry department at Scripps Research Institute, described an eerie scene: "The place is deserted and there is a sense of 9<ins cite="mailto:rmg95">/</ins>11 in the air here, albeit to a lesser degree, of course," he says. "The devastation of nature and structures [in San Diego County] is enormous, but the people are holding together well."

University of San Diego chemistry professor Tammy J. Dwyer and her family weren't themselves ordered to evacuate, but their surrounding neighborhoods were; so they sought refuge with Dwyer's brother and waited for the winds to die down.

"All of our department members are accounted for," Dwyer says. "Some are still displaced," but none have lost their properties, she adds.

Dozens of shelters were opened during the evacuation???the largest in California history???most notably, in San Diego's Qualcomm sports stadium, where 10,000 people took refuge.

More than a dozen blazes have stretched from Santa Barbara County to the border of California and Mexico, but the worst have been in San Diego County. The fires have burned about 450,000 acres; destroyed between 1,100 and 1,700 homes, according to various reports; and killed at least two people. Property damage in San Diego County is now estimated at $1 billion.

The deadly hot winds that fueled the fires have lasted three days and reached gusts of 100 mph near the fires' centers. The winds are expected to subside somewhat today. San Diego County fire officials say that the worst may be over in some areas, and they are allowing some people to return to their homes. But other areas have received fresh evacuation orders.

"The firefighters down here have done truly remarkable jobs making stands to prevent really devastating movement of the fires," Dwyer tells C&EN. "But it is still precarious."

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