Midday Update: Fierce winds fan Calif. wildfires; forecast worsens for shuttle launch; fleeing suspect severs pedestrian's leg; what we're working on

MALIBU, Calif. — Wildfires fanned by fierce desert winds threatened thousands of Southern California homes Monday, as firefighters struggled to combat the blazes that rapidly engulfed the region, killing one and forcing thousands to evacuate.

In many cases, crews couldn’t begin to fight the fires because they were too busy rescuing residents who refused to leave, fire officials told reporters in the San Diego area.

Several new fires sprouted overnight, adding to about a dozen blazes that have already burned 40,000 acres. The fires, which covered swaths of drought-parched land from the high desert to the Pacific Ocean, inflicted some of the worst damage in Malibu, where a church, homes and a castle were charred.

Firefighters acknowledged they were overwhelmed.

‘‘You do not expect something to stretch our resources to this magnitude,’’ Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Sam Padilla said. ‘‘To try and staff something this big, you cannot predict it.’’

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency late Sunday in seven counties. One person died in a fire near San Diego, which burned more than 14,000 acres — or about 22 square miles — about 70 miles southeast of San Diego, just north of the Mexican border town of Tecate, California Department of Forestry spokesman Matt Streck said.

‘‘The winds are up, it’s very, very dangerous conditions,’’ San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said. ‘‘Fires are popping up all over the place.’’

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Forecast worsens for liftoff of space shuttle Discovery, rain due

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA issued a more dismal forecast Monday for the planned liftoff of space shuttle Discovery, saying rain and low clouds would be moving in right around launch time.

Shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters put the odds of favorable conditions at just 40 percent for Tuesday morning, considerably worse than earlier forecasts. Liftoff is set for 11:38 a.m.

Winters said it will boil down to a matter of luck. It’s possible the rain and clouds will stay away until just after launch time.

‘‘There’s some wiggle room in there,’’ she said.

The weather at the emergency landing sites in Europe also was not looking too good for the entire week.

Everything else, at least, seemed to be going NASA’s way. The countdown was progressing without any major complications, said NASA test director Stephen Payne.

Police: Fleeing suspect hits pedestrian, severs his leg

SANDY SPRINGS — A man had his leg severed when he was struck by a motorist who was fleeing police, authorities said.

Police later arrested Mario Smith, 28, and charged him with felony hit-and-run and felony obstruction of a police officer. He also faces charges of fleeing and attempting to elude a police officer.

The incident began shortly before 10 a.m. Sunday when a Sandy Springs police officer pulled Smith over for a minor traffic violation, police Lt. Steve Rose said.

A check of Smith’s driver’s license showed he had a warrant for his arrest for failing to appear in Fulton County court on a theft charge. The officer told Smith he was going to arrest him and had cuffed one of the man’s hands when the motorist began to resist.

Smith got back into his car and drove off, and the officer had to let go of the man’s hand so he would not be dragged along, Rose said. The officer did not pursue.

Shortly after that, Smith struck a pedestrian as the man was crossing that street and kept driving, police said.

Police cars closed in on the suspect’s vehicle. While trying to drive past the police cars, the suspect hit three other vehicles. He got out of his car and tried to run but was arrested, police said.

The pedestrian who was struck underwent surgery at North Fulton Regional Hospital. He was expected to survive, but doctors were unable to reattach his leg, Rose said.

What we're working on

— A ceremonial - and figurative - groundbreaking is being held today for Macon's proposed convention center hotel. The ceremony was scheduled to be held in the convention center parking lot, but was moved inside due to weather. Our reporters and photographers are on the scene. We'll have more on this story this afternoon.

— Bibb County chooses its teacher of the year in a ceremony this evening.

— A forum for the 10 candidates vying for Warner Robins City Council seats is being held tonight at 7 at the Flint Energies Complex on Elberta Road.