Californians crowd into evacuation centres as fires rage out of control

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The Independent US

Susan Bates has no idea whether her home is still standing or has been burnt to a crisp. When she last saw it two days ago, it was within sight of a raging inferno on the crest of the Santa Susana mountains. Ash was falling from the sky and smoke was choking the blisteringly hot air.

She and her husband just had time to throw some clothes and a few valuables into the backs of their cars before the mandatory evacuation order came. "I've left my '65 Mustang convertible in the garage and most of my collection of baskets and ornaments is still in the house,'' said the 49-year-old mammographer, sitting on a camp bed in an evacuation centre 10 miles from her house: "It'll tug at my heartstrings if everything's gone. I'm already imagining what it will be like to go back and kick over whatever's left."

She and her husband live at the northwestern end of the San Fernando Valley, where some of Los Angeles' newest suburban developments meet the untrammelled wilds of nature. It is also the site of one of the region's devastating wildfires, responsible for 17 deaths and the destruction of more than 1,100 homes.

All around the rims of LA and San Diego, refugees from the furious blazes - fuelled by hot, desert winds - are sitting in evacuation centres. Ms Bates waits in the basketball gym of Granada Hills High School, where mostly modest working families and the elderly have gathered, looking a little lost but generally staying calm. The better off, and better insured, have checked into hotels but the fires have been ruthlessly egalitarian. In one exclusive community east of San Diego, a group of families were faced with the agonising choice of taking their chances at home or hazarding their way down smoke-blackened roads in the hope of reaching the safety of a local reservoir.

Bob and Barbara Daly, a retired couple, survived by jumping fully clothed into their swimming pool, then scrambling out to an area where the fire had already passed when the water got so hot they risked being boiled alive.

Four of their neighbours were not so lucky, perishing in their homes or dying in their burning cars.

The weather provided a slight reprieve yesterday, as the hot Santa Ana winds from the east gave way to cooler ocean breezes. Even so, more than 10,000 firemen continued to attempt to fend off the flames. Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, said: "It would be disingenuous to say we have control of these fires.Right now we are throwing everything we can at them"

* Yulara, the town that services Uluru, one of Australia's biggest tourist attractions, was on alert yesterday after wildfires destroyed a luxury hotel and forced guests to take refuge at the local airport. Two fires within four days swept through Yulara, consuming most of the Longitude 131 hotel, a collection of luxury tents with a view of Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock.