Thousands flee as fires erupt across California

One person was killed and thousands were evacuated on Monday as a series of wind-driven wildfires swept across California, forcing firefighters on to the defensive as they scrambled to halt the flames.

Nearly one year after a devastating firestorm that left eight people dead and gutted more than 2 000 homes, California’s fire season returned with a vengeance as scattered fires broke out from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The most serious incidents were twin blazes threatening homes in residential areas north of Los Angeles, where more than 1 000 firefighters were tackling flames bearing down on residential areas in the San Fernando Valley.

At least 1 200 residents had been evacuated and dozens of mobile homes had been destroyed as hot desert gusts known, as the Santa Ana winds, whipped up a wall of flames, Los Angeles County Fire Department officials said.

The fires ripped through about 4 000ha of tinder-dry brush and prompted authorities to issue mandatory evacuation orders for several neighbourhoods as well the closure of several schools.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the areas, urging residents to evacuate swiftly when asked.

“Winds are causing fire conditions to change by the hour, which is why it is so important that residents in the areas surrounding these wildfires heed warnings from public safety officials to evacuate,” he said.

Los Angeles County coroner’s official Ed Winter, meanwhile, said the first fatality of the wildfires appeared to be a homeless man living in a wood and cardboard shelter beneath a freeway interchange.

The California Highway Patrol said a second fatality occurred when a car crashed on a smoke-shrouded stretch of highway near one of the fires, a blaze near the northern Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch. However, the exact cause of the crash was not clear.

One long-time Porter Ranch resident who fled his home described smoke that was “so thick, you could cut it with a knife”.

“You couldn’t breathe there,” Randy Stalk told reporters. “It was horrible.”

The other fire threatening Los Angeles was blazing across 1 910ha in the Angeles National Forest. Eight neighbourhoods had been issued with evacuation orders although officials were unable to say how many homes were affected.

The fire was only 5% contained as fire crews backed by airborne water tankers struggled to get a grip on the flames in the face of ferocious gusts that sent the inferno leaping over containment lines.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told a briefing Monday that firefighters were bracing for a resurgence in strong winds overnight.

“The bad news is they expect the winds to pick up about midnight and through until the morning,” Villaraigosa said.

Elsewhere in California, about 1 025 homes were ordered evacuated in the town of Oceanside, outside San Diego, as flames swept towards the sprawling US Marine Corps base of Camp Pendleton, officials said.

The fire grew to about 200ha within two hours, and was bombarded by water-dropping aircraft as firefighters and military personnel were deployed to halt its advance.

Meanwhile, a spectacular fire on Angel Island State Park in San Francisco Bay tore through 160ha after breaking out late on Sunday but was closed to being contained, the California department of forestry and fire protection said.

California is frequently hit by scorching wildfires due to its dry climate, Santa Ana winds and recent construction booms that have seen housing spread rapidly into rural and densely forested areas.

Devastating wildfires in October 2007 were among the worst in California history, displacing 640 000 people and causing $1-billion in damage. — AFP

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