/ 22 October 2007

Wildfires sweep across southern California

From the high desert to the Pacific Ocean, out-of-control wildfires have engulfed swathes of drought-parched southern California, claiming one life, destroying several homes and a church in Malibu, and forcing an entire community to evacuate.

Thousands more homes remained at risk as hot, dry Santa Ana desert winds continued to churn into the region early on Monday.

Firefighters started the weekend on high alert as forecasters warned of strong winds. But by Sunday night, they had to admit 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.”

The Malibu fire was among about a dozen blazes that burned more than 14 000ha from north of Santa Barbara to San Diego. Late on Sunday, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in seven southern California counties.

One person died in the fire near San Diego, which burned more than 5 665ha — or about 57 square kilometres — about 115km south-east of San Diego, just north of the Mexican border town of Tecate, California department of forestry spokesperson Matt Streck said. Details were not immediately available.

Four firefighters and at least 10 other people were hospitalised, Streck said. Some of the injured were hikers, and others may be illegal immigrants.

Another blaze devoured more than 2 000ha in northern San Diego county and forced the evacuation of the community of Ramona, which has a population of about 36 000.

Several structures were burned on the edge of town and sheriff’s deputies called residents to alert them the fire was approaching the city, said San Diego sheriff’s Lieutenant Phil Brust.

In Malibu, about 700 firefighters worked to protect hundreds of homes in several upscale communities nestled in the hills. About 1 500 people were evacuated and the blaze destroyed a church and several homes, one of them the landmark Castle Kashan, a stately fortress-like home with turrets and arched windows. Chunks of brick fell from the exterior of the burning building overlooking the coast.

No residents or firefighters were injured, Los Angeles county fire chief P Michael Freeman said.

The castle belonged to Lilly Lawrence, the daughter of a former Iranian oil minister. She said she was able to gather a few things before the fire engulfed her home, including some jewellery and memorabilia that included Elvis Presley’s army fatigues.

She didn’t seem too worried about losing most of her belongings in the fire.

”My parents taught me not to allow my possessions to posses me,” Lawrence told KABC-TV. ”So, that’s the story. The house is a house.”

Winds carried embers across the Pacific Coast highway, closing the popular road and setting fire to cars and trees in the parking lot of a shopping centre where a supermarket, drug store and other shops were damaged.

”This fire is 9% contained, which means we’re at the mercy of the wind,” acting Malibu mayor Pamela Conley Ulich said on Sunday.

In all, five homes and two commercial buildings had been confirmed lost throughout the Malibu area, Freeman said. Nine more homes were damaged, he said. The fire is expected to burn for another two to three days, he added.

Until the blaze is extinguished, ”there will literally be thousands of homes that will be threatened at one time or another”, he said.

The fire may have been started by downed power lines, Captain Mike Brown said. — Sapa-AP