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Wildfires force evacuations

Blazes destroy homes; man faces charge

CORONA, Calif. -- Southern California's first wildfires of the season burned homes and brushlands and forced thousands of people to evacuate yesterday, portending what could be an especially dangerous and costly summer.

A man was charged with negligently setting the largest blaze.

The fires burned through a total of more than 15,000 acres of grass and low-lying scrub parched by blistering spring heat that led the state to declare an earlier-than-usual start to the fire season on Monday. At least nine cottages and two mobile homes were reported destroyed.

''We've never been burned this bad before," said Dick Benjamin, 70, whose home in Riverside County was saved. ''Fires are supposed to be in August and September, not May."

Nearly a dozen firefighters among the thousands on the job in Southern California were treated for injuries, including heat stroke and dehydration. At least two people fleeing a fire in the Los Padres National Forest were treated for injuries, including smoke inhalation and cuts and bruises.

The two biggest fires burned in Riverside County, an inland region east of Los Angeles. Fires also burned in San Diego County and up the coast in Santa Barbara County.

''Burning conditions are probably about what we'd expect in late June or July," said Rich Green, assistant deputy director of the California Forestry Department. A drought that has left vegetation tinder dry and an infestation of tree-killing bark beetles have set the stage for what could be a severe fire season.

Senator Dianne Feinstein said 2004 could be one of the worst fire seasons ever, coming on the heels of a record series of wildfires that tore through Southern California last year, killing 22 people and burning 3,600 homes.

As many as 600 people were evacuated as a 9,000-acre fire in Riverside County between Corona and Lake Elsinore approached their homes. An additional 2,000 to 3,000 people may have left voluntarily, Forestry Department engineer Rick Griggs said.

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