50,000 flee homes as fires rage in California

Thousands of weary evacuees will begin returning to their Los Angeles homes this morning, after a chaotic weekend in which their city was encircled by some of the most destructive wildfires in living memory.

Smoke and falling ash blotted out the sun and turned the sky orange across southern California yesterday, as emergency services struggled to contain blazes that destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and forced an estimated 50,000 residents to flee.

The Santa Ana winds reached almost hurricane strength and whipped up four separate fires, blackening 34 square miles of LA County, bringing gridlock to motorways and threatening water and power supplies.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency as blazes swept through mountain scrubland to the north, south and east of the city, producing what the Mayor of LA, Antonio Villaraigosa, described as "devastation like I've never seen".

No deaths were reported but the city's police chief, William Bratton, said he feared bodies would be found at the "ground zero" of the blazes – the Oakridge caravan park in Sylmar, 20 minutes' drive north-east of central Los Angeles. Nearly 500 dwellings, many housing elderly couples, were reduced to ashes on Saturday. Last night, police rescue dogs searched for human remains.

"I can't even read the street names because the street signs have melted," said Captain Steve Ruda, of the local fire service. To the south of the city, a further 18,000 acres of the Chino Hills near the commuter suburb of Yorba Linda went up in smoke, as more blazes swept across Orange County, destroying 100 homes.

An hour's drive to the north-west, the up-market enclave of Montecito near Santa Barbara also lost almost 100 homes in a wildfire that began on Thursday, but was nearly contained by last night. The town, which contains some of the most expensive property in America, is known as California's Riviera and is home to stars including Steve Martin, Steven Spielberg and Catherine Zeta Jones.

Several celebrities were among the 5,000 forced to flee, including the West Wing actor Rob Lowe. "Embers were falling," he said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. "The wind was 70mph and it was like Armageddon. There was no way to stop it."

The fourth major blaze began yesterday morning in San Bernardino county, south-east of Los Angeles, further stretching emergency crews, many of whom have worked without a break for 72 hours. At one point on Saturday, swirling winds threatened to bring fire into densely populated urban areas. Hot sparks were being blown up to a mile at a time and in some areas, firefighters were forced to flee, leaving their hoses to melt into the streets.

Calmer winds yesterday brought some relief. The National Weather Service reported that gusts had dropped to 39mph in Sylmar and to 25mph in Orange County. Increased humidity is forecast for today and tomorrow, raising hopes that the fires could be contained by the middle of the week. However, thick ash continued to fall on cars and homes up to 25 miles from each of the fires yesterday, and residents were told to stay indoors.

The Pasadena marathon was cancelled, and local fitness fanatics were warned against exercising outdoors. Two of the five major electricity transmission lines into Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley were down, causing rolling power cuts. Falling water pressure in some areas also threatened the relief effort, as families caught in mandatory evacuation zones hosed down their properties before hitting the road.

California's "fire season," which traditionally runs from June to October, has become a major year-round menace thanks to a mixture of perennial drought and the increasing number of homes built in canyons and on hillsides surrounded by brush and forest.

The latest fires comes at the end of a long, hot summer in which emergency services have been continually stretched, exacerbating the state's stretched finances, and reducing 1.25 million acres of countryside to ashes.

California faces a budget deficit of $20bn (£13.6bn) and Mr Schwarzenegger has asked for federal help with the cost of airborne fire relief.

*On average this decade, 7.24 million acres of land have been destroyed by wildfires in California each year. This is double is the average of the 1990s.



*In October 2007, a spate of fires destroyed 2,000 homes in southern California in just one week, forcing 500,000 residents to evacuate.



*The wildfires of October 2007 produced as much greenhouse gas as would 440,000 cars in a year.

Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth gamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game