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Quick alert, mass evacuation may have saved lives

  • Story Highlights
  • San Diego County's early alert system updated just a month ago
  • New system capable of issuing 400,000 alerts in an hour
  • Some 270,000 residents were sent evacuation orders, officials say
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(CNN) -- Stinging from the painful lessons learned from wildfires that claimed 15 lives four years ago, authorities in San Diego County were quick to warn and evacuate residents this time.

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Residents evacuate their homes as flames approach from a wildfire in Foothill Ranch, California.

The county's new, Internet-based emergency notification system issued a multitiered alert -- by phone, by e-mail and by text message.

The result: Some 300,000 people evacuated ahead of the flames.

"We do know that we have placed now over 270,000 calls ... evacuated over 300,000 people, which is a very significant number," County Supervisor Ron Roberts told reporters on Tuesday morning.

All law enforcement agencies in the county are on tactical alert and about 600 officers are patrolling the areas affected by the fire, authorities said.

They are working 12-hour shifts with no days off, and will be helped by the California National Guard.

There were reports of scattered looting and at least two arrests.

Evacuations continued Tuesday in San Diego and elsewhere in southern California as new fires were fanned by the ever-shifting devil winds, the Santa Anas. Video Watch the flames advance in Chula Vista »

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency as 11 blazes charred nearly 350,000 acres in seven counties -- San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura and Santa Barbara. More than 1,000 homes have been lost. Video Watch Schwarzenegger describe a 'tragedy' in California »

Officials in San Diego County said the property damage has surpassed that of the 2003 firestorm, until now the county's "worst." But, they noted, so far only one life has been lost, compared with 15 fatalities four years ago.

The county's Emergency Mass Notification System came into operation just a month ago, at a cost of $100,000. While the old system was capable of placing 11,000 calls an hour -- and just to land lines, the new system can send up to 400,000 alerts an hour, via phone call, e-mail and text message.

It was implemented as one of the many improvements recommended in the wake of the 2003 firestorm. It actually was three fires -- the Cedar Fire, which burned 273,000 acres, the Paradise Fire, which charred 56,700 acres and the Otay Fire, which consumed 46,000 acres.

San Diego County's emergency plan continues to be a work in progress. According to some published reports, residents who fled their homes found roads jammed with traffic, hotels booked to capacity, and poorly equipped emergency shelters.

Confusion led some evacuees to head toward Qualcomm's headquarters; they were redirected to Qualcomm Stadium, where about 10,000 people huddled on Monday night. Video Watch evacuees try to cope at the stadium »

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San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said Tuesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has promised 20,000 cots and 25,000 blankets for the 19 shelters in the county.

The Witch Fire in the northern San Diego County, which has grown to 164,000 acres, is the priority because of its significant threat to structures, said Ron Lane, the county's director of emergency services. The Harris Fire had burned more than 70,000 acres by midmorning. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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