LAKE ARROWHEAD, Calif. -- Firefighters struggled desperately Wednesday to save emptied-out resort towns in Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains as 200-foot walls of flame engulfed dead and dried-out trees.
In San Diego County, the state's largest fire claimed another victim when a firefighting crew was overcome by flames. Firefighter Steven Rucker, 38, was killed while trying to save a home near Wynola. Three others were injured.
It marked the first firefighter death since the series of blazes began last week.
"It just swept right over them. They probably didn't have time to get out of the way," San Diego County Sheriff's Sgt. Conrad Grayson said.
The death toll later reached 20 after authorities said two people were found dead Wednesday on an Indian reservation as the result of the same San Diego County fire.
In the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds from the desert that had been whipping the fires into raging infernos eased Wednesday. But they gave way to stiff breezes off the ocean that pushed the flames up the canyon walls around evacuated mountain enclaves like Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear -- towns that are among Southern California's most popular mountain playgrounds.
By early afternoon, homes were burning in the mountain community of CedarPines Park. The flames were expected to hit the town of Running Springs after crews weren't able to set backfires along a highway to protect the town. The fires also swept over mountain tops, forcing evacuations in parts of the high desert town of Hesperia.
"There's fire on so many fronts, it's not even manageable at this point," said Chris Cade, a fire prevention technician with the U.S. Forest Service, as he watched a pillar of smoke he estimated at 9,000 feet rise into a hazy sky thick with ash. "I am at a loss what you can do about it."
The fires have burned more than 620,000 acres and destroyed 2,100 homes. More than 12,000 firefighters and support crew were fighting what Gov. Gray Davis said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced. He estimated the cost at $2 billion so far.
The fires burned in a broken arc across Southern California, from Ventura County east to Los Angeles County and the San Bernardino Mountains and south to San Diego County.
About 100 fire engines encircled the historic mining town of Julian in the mountains of eastern San Diego County, hoping to save the popular weekend getaway community renowned for its vineyards and apple orchards.
However, some two dozen engines and water tenders that were headed to Julian were forced to turn back when flames swept over a highway. And as the winds picked up, floating embers sparked spot fires near the region of 3,500, forcing some crews to retreat.
South of Julian, about 90 percent of the homes had been destroyed in Cuyamaca, a lakeside town of about 160 residents. Charred cows lay by the side of the road and houses were reduced to little more than stone entryways.
"Everything's kind of happening all at once. These fires are trying really hard to tie in with each other," said Bill Bourbeau, a forest safety officer for the Cleveland National Forest. "It's tremendous."
San Diego County fire officials feared a 233,000-acre fire and the 50,000-acre blaze would merge into a huge, single blaze that would make it nearly impossible to keep it from reaching Julian. The firefighting death and injuries occurred in the larger of the two blazes.
Officials in San Diego County -- where most of the deaths took place -- predicted the death toll would rise after investigators began scouring devastated neighborhoods.
A crew of U.S. Forest Service Hot Shots outside Julian was given an ominous warning by their team leader: If they came across any human remains, they were to cordon off the area until a medical examiner could get in.
"If we find somebody in the brush who took off running or whatever," Capt. Fred Brewster told his 19-member team. "Who knows what you're going to find up there? It's a giant mess."