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Southern California wildfire forces tens of thousands from homes

A wildfire tore through canyons and flew over ridges in every direction with astonishing speed, sending flames 24 metres skyward and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes.

Massive blaze just 1 of many burning in the drought-plagued state

A firefighter begins clearing Highway 138 east of Interstate 15 as a wildfire burns in California last Tuesday. (James Quigg/The Daily Press via Associated Press)

California's newest huge wildfire advanced on thousands of homes Wednesday, feeding on drought-stricken vegetation and destroying an untold number of structures as it expanded to nearly 122 square kilometres.

Authorities could not say how many homes were destroyed in the first furious hours, but they prepared communities for bad news.

"There will be a lot of families that come home to nothing," San Bernardino County Fire Department Chief Mark Hartwig said after a morning flight over a scene he described as "devastating."

"It hit hard. It hit fast. It hit with an intensity that we hadn't seen before," he said.

No deaths were reported, but cadaver dogs were used to search ruins to look for anyone who was overrun by the flames.

The blaze 97 kilometres east of Los Angeles was among eight large wildfires being battled by 10,000 firefighters statewide, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In a fifth year of low rainfall, much of the area is in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought.

San Bernardino County firefighter Jeremy Pendergraft helps a couple leave their home as the wildfire quickly approaches. Most evacuees were allowed to return on Sunday. (The Associated Press)

Flames continued to climb the flanks of the San Gabriel Mountains toward the town of Wrightwood, where authorities said that only half of the community's 4,500 residents had complied with evacuation orders covering more than 34,000 homes. That would result in more than 82,000 people being displaced.

"This is not the time to mess around," said Battalion Chief Mark Peebles of the San Bernardino County Fire Department. "If you are asked to evacuate, please evacuate."

Less than 24 hours after the blaze began, the fire command assembled a fleet of 10 air tankers, 15 helicopters and an army of 1,300 firefighters, many of them just off the lines of a wildfire that burned for 10 days just to the east.

The fire erupted late Tuesday morning in Cajon Pass, a critical highway and rail corridor through mountain ranges that separate Southern California's major population centres from the Mojave Desert to the north.

Countless big rigs were parked on both sides of the pass, waiting for Interstate 15 and a web of other roads to reopen. Alternate routes involved significant detours. The pass is a major route for travel from the Los Angeles region to Las Vegas.

The speed of the fire's spread astonished those in its path.

Swirling column of flame moves slowly towards highway 1:02

It tore through canyons and flew over ridges in every direction with astonishing speed, sending flames 24 metres skyward and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes.

"This moved so fast," said Darren Dalton, 51, who along with his wife and son had to get out of his house in Wrightwood. "It went from 'Have you heard there's a fire?' to mandatory evacuation before you could take it all in. This is a tight little community up here. Always in rally mode. Suddenly it's a ghost town."

Shannon Anderson of Blue Mountain Farms horse ranch in Phelan had to load up and move 40 horses as the fire approached. "It's raining ash," Anderson said, breathing hard.

'We were fully engulfed in smoke'

It was among several large fires burning up and down California, from Shasta County in the far north to Camp Pendleton marine base in San Diego County. It came after several steady weeks of major fires around the state, even though the full force of fire season has yet to arrive.

But even longtime observers were surprised by the staggering speed of the Southern California fire.

It prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in the area within hours of it breaking out, a move that more often comes after a blaze has done several days of destruction.

The fast-moving and erratic blaze destroyed 105 homes, according to a preliminary assessment. (Doug Saunders/The Sun via Associated Press)

Six firefighters were briefly trapped by flames at a home where the occupants had refused to leave, forcing the crew to protect the house, fire officials said.

"We were fully engulfed in smoke," county firefighter Cody Anderson told KCBS-TV. "It was really hard just to see your hand in front of your face.

"We just hunkered down and sat there and waited for the fire to blow over," he said.

A plane drops a fire retardant over a wildfire near Cajon Pass in California on Tuesday. (James Quigg/The Daily Press via Associated Press)

Anderson and another firefighter were treated for minor injuries.

As that fire surged, a major blaze north of San Francisco was fading, and about 4,000 people in the town of Clearlake were allowed to return home.

Arson charges

Their relief, however, was tempered with anger at a man who authorities believe set the blaze that wiped out several blocks of a small town over the weekend along with 16 smaller fires dating back to last summer.

Investigators in Northern California said Tuesday they had been building a case against the suspected arsonist, construction worker Damin Anthony Pashilk, 40, for more than a year. But they did not have enough evidence to make an arrest until the weekend blaze ripped through Lower Lake.

The fire destroyed 175 homes and other structures in the working-class town of Lower Lake.

A partially melted thermometer is seen on a house that survived. (Josh Edelson/Associated Press)

"What I'd do to him, you don't want to know," said Butch Cancilla, who saw his neighbour's home catch fire as he fled on Sunday. Cancilla still doesn't know the fate of his own home.

"A lot of people want to hang him high," Cancilla's wife Jennie added.

An attorney listed as representing Pashilk did not return a call requesting comment. Pashilk is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday.

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