Death toll rises as California fires rage out of control

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The Independent US

The skies above southern California were filled with a swirling, near-apocalyptic mix of smoke and ash yesterday as the worst fires to strike the state in more than a decade raged through suburban communities, forcing thousands of people out of their homes into temporary shelters and killing at least 13 people.

The skies above southern California were filled with a swirling, near-apocalyptic mix of smoke and ash yesterday as the worst fires to strike the state in more than a decade raged through suburban communities, forcing thousands of people out of their homes into temporary shelters and killing at least 13 people.

The blazes, which began in areas of mountain forest and brushland, have been fanned by hot desert winds of up to 60mph. They now form a deadly ring of fire around Los Angeles and San Diego, lapping at newer housing developments on the outskirts, forcing schools and offices to close and wreaking havoc with the region's road, rail and airline services.

President George Bush declared the fire-stricken region a major disaster area, thus opening the purse-strings of the Federal Emergency Management Authority. "This is a devastating fire and it's a dangerous fire. And we're prepared to help in any way we can," he said at the White House.

Californioa's worst fires in a decade have destroyed more than 1,100 homes and were threateneing a further 30,000.

Thousands of firefighters were working around the clock to try to quell the flames, but the bone-dry underbrush and the notoriously malevolent seasonal Santa Ana winds were making their jobs next to impossible. "This is our worst nightmare," Tricia Abbas of the San Bernardino National Forest service, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, told reporters. "This is everything we didn't want here: Santa Ana winds, dead forest, high temperatures."

In the foothills around San Bernardino, two fires that started over the weekend merged into a terrifying 40-mile wide curtain of flames. The fire tore through four new suburban developments, destroying at least 450 homes, and jumped up into the mountains to nibble at the outskirts of weekend getaway resorts around Lake Arrowhead.

More than 400 people spent Sunday night crammed into a small hangar at San Bernardino airport, sleeping on hastily provided army camp beds covered with dark grey blankets. Restaurants and local churches donated pizzas and bottled water, as scared fire survivors recounted their efforts to collect a few valuables before beating a hasty retreat.

"Our hearts go out to you," Gray Davis,California's outgoing Governor, said in a visit to the airport in which he declared a state of emergency in four southern California counties.

Further south, around San Diego, million-dollar homes went up in flames in the Scripps Ranch area in an inland canyon. Fires consumed a total of more than 100,000 acres on the eastern edges of San Diego, destroying about 260 residences. A federal aviation control centre in San Diego was evacuated, causing air travel disruption across the United States. An American football game due to be held last night between the San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins was hastily moved to Tempe, Arizona, because San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium had been converted into an evacuation centre.

The fires were also raging on a third front, in the hills of Ventura County north-west of Los Angeles. Farming towns along the Santa Clara river valley were frantically trying to beat back the flames. At one stage on Sunday the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley seemed to be under threat, but a change in wind direction offered a reprieve.

At least two of the fires were started on purpose, according to police who are hunting hitherto unnamed suspects and seriously considering murder charges as and when they find them. Some of the dead perished in their homes, while others were burnt alive in their cars as they tried to make their escape. A third fire, in the mountains east of San Diego, was caused by a hunter who lit a fire signal after he became lost. He too may face criminal charges.

Fire is nevertheless a recurring feature of life throughout California, especially now that suburban development has taken over arid stretches of semi-desert and mountain foothills. The Santa Ana, which can blow for several days at a stretch in the dry autumn months, is notorious not only for starting fires but also for inflaming people's tempers and increasing the murder rate in Los Angeles.

"Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse ..." Joan Didion once wrote in a celebrated essay. "The violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds show us how close to the edge we are."

Weather forecasters saw little chance of a quick reprieve yesterday. Although the winds tend to subside at night, there has been no sign of the late-evening dampness that sometimes brings relief to mountain areas at this time of the year. Firefighters and other emergency services remained on high alert throughout the region - particularly in the foothills behind the movie star mansions of Malibu, which were hit by debilitating fires 10 years ago.

Already, the fires have been deemed the worst since a 1991 conflagration in the hills above Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, in which 25 people were killed and 3,200 homes destroyed.

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