The gale-force winds turned hillside canyons into giant blowtorches from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. Although the worst damage was around San Diego and Lake Arrowhead, dangerous fires also threatened Malibu, parts of Orange and Ventura counties, and the Agua Dulce area near Santa Clarita.
Late Monday night, new blazes were menacing homes near Stevenson Ranch and in Soledad Canyon in northern Los Angeles County. The Soledad Canyon fire burned multiple mobile homes and evacuations were underway, fire officials said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, calling it "a tragic time for California," declared a state of emergency in seven counties and redeployed California National Guard members from the border to support firefighters. Schwarzenegger stressed how much California officials have learned since the devastating wildfires of October 2003, which raged over much of the same terrain.
But as the day wore on, it became clear that any hard-earned knowledge was no match for natural forces overrunning the ability of firefighters to control them.
"The issue this time is not preparedness," said San Diego City Council President Scott Peters. "It's that the event is so overwhelming."
Pat Helsing, 59, evacuated her home in the Scripps Ranch area, much as she had done four years ago.
"It seems scarier this time," she said. "The fire is everywhere in San Diego now. You don't know where you can go to escape it."
By late Monday, Southern California fires had burned 269,000 acres -- about 420 square miles -- and destroyed at least 892 buildings. Remarkably, only one person was known to have died, although it was possible that more fatalities would be discovered. At least 37 people had been injured, including 17 firefighters.
Near Malibu, where fire Sunday had burned into the center of town, the focus Monday was in the hills, where firefighters on the ground and in the air were trying to prevent flames from marching across Las Flores Canyon and into Topanga Canyon.
"It's trying to move toward Topanga Canyon, parallel to the coastline," said Manhattan Beach Battalion Chief Frank Chiella, near the Rambla Pacifico area. Firefighters were attempting to stay ahead of the fire and funnel it toward the ocean.
"If you let it get wide, that's a lot more homes it could take out," Chiella said. "We're doing what we can to keep it from getting bigger; we've only lost one home today."
Two fires on opposite sides of Lake Arrowhead had burned about 2,000 acres by Monday evening, destroying 138 buildings and prompting the evacuation of hundreds of residents from mountain resort communities.
In northern Los Angeles County, the Buckweed fire had swept through 35,000 acres by Monday evening, destroying 20 homes and two bridges, and causing the evacuation of about 15,000 people. It was burning toward Magic Mountain, but was partially contained.
In Orange County, where a suspected arson fire stretched the resources of local crews, residents along Calle Cabrillo in Foothill Ranch were packing cars and preparing to evacuate.
"We've been through this before," Karen Royer said. "I believe in God, and I know everything will be good."
Minutes later, a plume of dark smoke lifted over a ridgeline.
"Can I revise that?" she said. "Now I'm scared."
The Orange County blaze, called the Santiago fire, was leaping relentlessly in a southeasterly direction, burning ominously close to the Foothill Ranch and Portola Hill communities. About 500 firefighters and two water-carrying helicopters stood between the fire and hundreds of homes, Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion said.
Several firefighters escaped major injuries when they deployed fire-retardant survival tents as they were overtaken by flames along Santiago Canyon Road