California wildfires force more than 250,000 to leave their homes

Firefighters in Southern California are battling more than a dozen wildfires that have destroyed 16,000 hectares of land and forced the evacuation of more than 250,000 people from their homes in the area.

Firefighters in Southern California are battling more than a dozen wildfires that have destroyed 16,000 hectares of land andforced the evacuation of more than 250,000 people from theirhomes in the area.

At least one person has been killed and dozens more injured in seven counties — which are under a state of emergency — with up to 14 fires burning in the state.

More than 600 homes have burned, nearly 130 in one mountain area alone, and thousands of other buildings were threatened by the blazes, which cover at least 1,300 square kilometres.

A home burns on Camp Plenty Road in Canyon Country, Calif., on Sunday. ((Dan Steinberg/Associated Press))
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Mondaythat "it's a tragic time for California."

At a news conference in Malibu, he said that only 10 per cent of the fires have been contained, but that authorities at all government levels areco-operating to get them under control.

Firefighters struggled Monday to keep up as the dry Santa Ana desert winds continued to stoke the flames. Many of the wildfires were started by downed power lines, with at least onepossiblyset on purpose, officials said.

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

Wind gusts in some areas reached 130km/h, with the average wind speed around 50 to 65 km/h, David Janssen of California's Department of Forestry told CBC Newsworld in a phone interview.

The nighttime typically allows firefighters to get aggressive fires under control as humidity rises and the temperature drops, but no such relief came Sunday night, Janssen said.

The department hoped to have aircraft drop fire retardant, but safety concerns over visibility in the thick smoke blanketing the area may thwart those plans, he said.

Malibu landmark destroyed

Among the 13 blazes burning from north of Santa Barbara to San Diego was a fire in the celebrity enclave of Malibu.

Fire consumes the multimillion-dollar home known as Castle Kashan. ((Reed Saxon/Associated Press))

Hundreds of firefighters battled the Malibu blaze to try to protect hundreds of homes in the upscale communities nestled in the hills. About 1,500 people were evacuated, and eight buildings, including several multimillion-dollar homes, two commercial buildings and a church, were destroyed.

Among the destroyed homes was the landmark Castle Kashan, a stately fortress-like residence with turrets and arched windows that overlooks Malibu Lagoon.

The owner of the hillside home, Lilly Lawrence, said she gathered a few things, including some jewelry and Elvis Presley memorabilia, before fire engulfed the building.

Also among the properties set ablaze Sunday was a ranch owned by actor/director Sean Penn, whose property atop Carbon Canyon also burned in the 2003 Malibu fire.

The current Malibu wildfirealso forced several celebrities,including Canadian-born Titanic director James Cameron, Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer andsinger-actress Olivia Newton-John, from their homes.

Homes belonging to actors Mark Hamill and David Duchovny were also threatened by the fire.

The fire chief in Los Angeles County said the fire raging in the Malibu area could burn for at least two or three more days.

Two wildfires destroyed 128 homes in the mountain resort community of Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles, authorities said.

In Orange County, officials moved inmates from a prison to another facility in Irvine because of heavy smoke, sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino said.

Community evacuated

Thearea with theworst situation Monday was San Diego county, where firefightersbattled at least four wildfires that forced 250,000 people to leave their homes.

On Monday night, fire officials announced that 500 homes and 100 commercial properties had been destroyed by a fire in northern San Diego County.

The fire injured seven firefighters and one civilian, and was spreading unchecked.

One person died in a fire in the county just north of the Mexican border town of Tecate, said Matt Streck, a California Department of Forestry spokesman.

In the eastern part of the county, the wildfires forced authorities earlier Monday to call for the evacuation of the town of Ramona, which has a population of about 15,000.

On the edge of the community, several buildings were burned and sheriff's deputies called residents to tell them the fire was approaching.

A hospital and neighbouring nursing homes in Poway, a San Diego suburb, were using ambulances and school buses to remove patients from the area, San Diego sheriff's spokeswoman Susan Knauss said.

Wildfires had been expected in Southern California over the weekend as hot weather and Santa Ana winds marked the height of traditional wildfire season after one of the driest years on record.

With files from the Associated Press