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.