( Reuters ) - Towering wildfires burned out of control across Southern California for a third day on Tuesday as 500,000 people fled the San Diego area, and firefighters made a desperate stand to save a mountain town ringed by flames.
More than a dozen fires blazed from the horse country north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border 150 miles ( 240 km) to the south, torching 1,500 houses and other buildings, blotting out the sun with smoke and raining ash on the streets.
Most of the destroyed homes were in the San Diego area, where three major wildfires burned unchecked and half a million people were ordered to leave in what may be the largest U.S. evacuation since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.
At least five deaths were reported, three of them elderly evacuees from the San Diego area, and more than three dozen others had been injured, including 18 firefighters.
As the firestorms raged into the evening, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked President George W. Bush to upgrade California's wildfires to a "major disaster," which would trigger federal help.
Bush already issued a declaration of emergency early Tuesday. But Schwarzenegger told him in a new letter that "this disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capability of the state and local governments."
Schwarzenegger said 68,000 homes, from cabins to luxury villas, were threatened statewide and 6,000 men and women were working the fire lines. More than 300,000 acres ( 120,000 hectares) have been blackened and the state government put economic losses in the hundreds of millions.
"We have had three things come together -- very dry areas, very hot weather and a lot of wind. This makes the perfect storm for fire," Schwarzenegger said at Lake Arrowhead, where blazes threatened two nearby mountain communities.