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Unrelenting fires char S. California, at least half a million flee

  • Story Highlights
  • 3,000 Marines evacuated at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego
  • Defense Department firefighting teams fighting the blazes, official says
  • President Bush is set to visit Southern California on Thursday
  • More than a half-million people evacuated in San Diego County alone
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Relentless wildfires roared through Southern California for a third day Tuesday, sending more than half a million residents fleeing with family members, pets and whatever prize possessions they could fit in their vehicles.

The blazes have charred 400,000 acres and reduced 1,300 homes -- 1,000 in San Diego County -- to ash.

The fires have killed one person and injured more than 50. Earlier Tuesday, officials erroneously reported that a second person had died.

Earlier Tuesday, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, said the number of evacuees "could very well approach 500,000 by the end of the day."

By Tuesday night, officials had evacuated nearly 350,000 homes in San Diego County. Using U.S. Census Bureau numbers from the 2000 census, that could mean as many as 950,000 were affected by the fires.

In San Diego County, at least 513,000 residents had been ordered to find refuge in shelters, schools and stadiums as fires pushed into new areas.

Twelve thousand more people were advised but not ordered to evacuate.Video Watch a fire official describe "utter devastation" »

President Bush will visit the area Thursday, the White House said. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff arrived in San Diego on Tuesday afternoon.

Chertoff promised a different federal reaction from the one in New Orleans in 2005.

"We have been preparing and planning and training together for the last 2 years," he said.

And the scene at Qualcomm Stadium on Tuesday did seem to live up to Chertoff's expectations as volunteers cheerily handed out chairs, food and water.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency delivered 25,000 cots early Tuesday. Video Watch report of a man who fled fire in Chula Vista »

Free newspapers were available, National Guard troops kept watch, ventriloquists and balloon artists entertained kids, and even massage therapists were trying to help the 12,000 to 15,000 evacuees relax as they fretted about the fate of their homes. Video Watch evacuees try to pass the time as they worry about their homes »

Meanwhile, at least two fires raged on the property of the U.S. Marines' Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. Three-thousand Marines were evacuated Tuesday evening.

Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said 550 Camp Pendleton Marines were preparing to deploy to the fire area.

As the Santa Ana winds, which approached 70 mph, fueled the fires, 1,400 Navy personnel and their families were evacuated, the Pentagon said. Photo See photos of the fires »

And in an effort to make room for more civilians who have had to evacuate their homes, sailors stationed in Southern California are abandoning their barracks.

McHale said that a dozen Defense Department firefighting teams, with 12 engines, were already working the blazes, and more than 17,000 National Guardsmen are potentially available if needed.

The Pentagon has provided 11 helicopters equipped with water buckets to fight the fires, he said. But aerial attacks on the fires have been minimal because of the fierce Santa Ana winds.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already called up 1,500 National Guard troops, including more than 200 taken from border duty to help with supplies and security at Qualcomm Stadium and DelMar Fairgrounds and Racetrack, where thousands of evacuated residents are taking shelter.

Eighteen firefighters have been injured in the blazes, according to Schwarzenegger, who said Tuesday that he was "heartbroken" after touring the Lake Arrowhead area where the Grass Valley and Slide fires have burned 5,000 acres and destroyed more than 200 homes.

Lake Arrowhead resident Michelle Dresser, who owns a business and was chased from her home by a wildfire last year, said Tuesday she was waiting until the last minute to leave. She spent the night in her store, partly to help customers and neighbors. "It is crazy. We are surrounded by fire on both sides," she said.

Asked by CNN where she would go, she replied, "I have to find someplace to accept two dogs, two cats and a turtle."

Qualcomm Stadium is accepting animals.

New evacuation orders are being added frequently to the San Diego Office of Emergency Services Web site.

Officials said the crisis is far from over.

"It will not end ... until it reaches the ocean or the winds turn around," San Diego Fire Battalion Chief Bruce Cartelli said Tuesday. See where fires burn across Southern California »

Despite having 21 years of experience as a firefighter, Arthur Jackson marveled at the fires he battled. "It is just amazing how this fire selects whatever it wants and burns whatever it wants," he told CNN.

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Although they were toiling in 24-hour shifts, Jackson said he and his fellow firefighters were "holding up pretty good." What weighed heaviest on them was not so much the physical exertion, he said, but knowing they had failed to protect all of the structures.

For some, the failure was more than a professional concern. "Some of the firefighters -- their own homes have burned up," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Dan Simon contributed to this report.

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