Thousands evacuated as wildfires surround Los Angeles


Fires raged for the fourth day around southern California today as firefighters hoped lighter winds would help them combat blazes that have destroyed more than 800 homes and forced 50,000 people to flee the flames.

A fourth major blaze ripped through tinder-dry brush in San Bernardino County, south-east of Los Angeles this morning, firefighters said.

Elsewhere wildfires had scorched 18,000 acres (7,200 hectares) in foothills north of Los Angeles, in hillsides in Orange County to the south, and in the celebrity enclave of Montecito near Santa Barbara where fire first started on Thursday and destroyed 210 homes.

Some 500 mobile homes in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley were transformed into a smoking wasteland.
“I can’t even read the street names because the street signs are melting,” Los Angeles Fire Captain Steve Ruda said at Oakridge Mobile Home Park.

Tens of thousands of residents have evacuated their homes in Santa Barbara County and along the Orange-Riverside county line.

Weary firefighters battled record high temperatures and hot Santa Ana winds under smoky orange skies. But weather forecasters said that wind gusts of up to 130 km/h that sent embers flying for miles over the last three days had died down early today, although firefighters expected it would take days to contain most of the blazes.

No serious injuries have been reported but police today sent cadaver dogs through a mobile home park in Sylmar, north of Los Angeles, where 500 dwellings went up in flames overnight on Friday.

Police and authorities said they feared many of the mostly elderly residents may not have escaped in time.

"You could see absolutely nothing," said Jackie Burns (77), who fled her mobile home in Sylmar with her husband early yesterday morning. "It was like looking into a black hole. It looked like the end of the world to me."
Several multimillion-dollar homes and a small Christian college were damaged in Montecito, a town of 14,000 that has attracted celebrities such as Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas and Oprah Winfrey. More than 5,400 homes were evacuated.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles. Health authorities urged the elderly and children to stay indoors and said no one should be exercising outdoors.

California's fire season, which traditionally ran from June to October, has been a year-round menace for several years because of perennial drought. The state's burgeoning population has led to homes being built in rugged canyons and on hillsides surrounded by brush and forests.

In October 2007, 30 blazes raged across Southern California, forcing evacuation of more than 500,000 people and damaging some 2,000 homes.