USA — One person was killed and thousands were evacuated as a series of wind-driven wildfires swept across California, forcing firefighters onto 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 a wave of infernos erupted from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
The most serious fires 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 fanned a wall of flames, Los Angeles County Fire Department officials said.
The fires had ripped through nearly 4,046 hectares 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 to do so.
“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 freeway near one of the fires, a 5,000-acre blaze near the northern Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch.
One longtime 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 4,726 acres 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 per cent contained as firecrews, including 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 fire chief Michael Freeman urged residents to evacuate when requested.
“In some situations, you may not even be able to outrun the fire if you’re that close to it,” Mr Freeman said.
“It is extremely hot, and even from 30 or 40 feet can be hot enough to maybe set one’s shirt or clothing on fire.”
The flames sent thick clouds of black smoke belching across the area and had destroyed a total of 37 mobile homes.
The fire broke out early Sunday but its cause is unknown, fire department officials said.
Elsewhere in California, some 1,025 homes were ordered evacuated in the town of Oceanside as flames swept towards the sprawling US Marine Corps base of Camp Pendleton outside San Diego, officials said.
The fire grew to around 500 acres in size within two hours, and was being 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 400 acres after breaking out late Sunday but was closed to being contained, according to figures from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
California is frequently hit by scorching wildfires due to its dry climate, Santa Ana winds and recent housing booms which 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 one billion dollars in damage.
In June and July this year, a series of about 2,000 fires raged across the state, scorching some 3,500 square kilometres of land, according to officials.