4,000 battle blazes in California

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Nearly 4,000 firefighters worked in blistering temperatures yesterday to contain a huge complex of fires in rugged wilderness and keep them from threatening Californian desert and mountain communities.

The lightning-caused fires, covering about 108 square miles have now merged in craggy, brush-covered hills just north east of the mountains, where millions of trees killed by drought and bark beetles could provide explosive fuel.

When fires become intense enough, they can generate their own winds and become highly unpredictable. Officials were concerned that the unforgiving desert heat, erratic winds and rugged terrain will challenge firefighters. Fire heat rising into the atmosphere could produce dry lightning.

The larger of the two fires has destroyed 56 homes and 163 smaller buildings such as sheds, officials said.

The 59,000-acre blaze over about 92 square miles, began a week ago on the Mojave Desert floor below the eastern flank of the San Bernardinos, and was 35 per cent contained.

The smaller fire had burned 10,000 acres - roughly 16 square miles - and was for from contained.

Though heavy smoke filled the sky on Friday, wind was pushing that fire away from the mountaintop Big Bear resort region and back on to areas already burned by the larger fire. Thousands of people live in and around Big Bear Lake, a popular summer destination about 80 miles east of Los Angeles.

Despite low humidity, steep, broken slopes and 40C temperatures, US Forest Service spokesman Jim Wilkins said that firefighting efforts were in "great shape". About 2,900 firefighters and three dozen aircraft were battling the blazes.

In Pioneertown, a former Western movie locale where the larger fire burned several homes this week, a search and rescue team found a body about a mile away from the home of a 57-year-old man who was reported missing on Tuesday after a fire swept through the area

A 500-acre blaze which began on Friday night near the city of San Bernardino, California, threatened about 100 homes and was said to be only 20 per cent under control.

Meanwhile, in southern Montana, firefighters mostly to the east of Billings were battling four large fires that charred tens of thousands of acres on Friday evening.

The fires threatened hundreds of homes, officials said.