More than 250,000 Californians were forced to flee their homes last night as the worst wildfires in more than a decade raged all the way from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border.
The most intense damage was felt in San Diego, where hot, gusting desert winds were driving the flames into the outer suburbs and out towards the coast. Further north in Malibu, the fabled playground for Hollywood's rich and famous, residents staring at the usually sun-kissed 27-mile coastline saw only smoke and flames belching out into the Pacific Ocean. The fires, which began on Sunday, have killed at least one person and consumed dozens of buildings, including two well-known Malibu landmarks – a sprawling fake chateau perched prominently on a hillside and a Presbyterian church.
The evacuees were not spared by wealth or social status. Among the celebrities whose homes were under threat last night were the Friends actresses Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston, the Hard Rock Cafel tycoons Peter and Harry Morton, the film director James Cameron, the actor Mel Gibson and the music mogul David Geffen. Firefighters worked around the clock but were hampered by gale-force winds of 50mph or more, which prevented their helicopters from getting close to the inferno and threatened to exacerbate the fires again yesterday. Even after a cooler night from Sunday to Monday, only 10 per cent of the Malibu blaze had been contained.
Malibu County is used to brush fires, because of its situation on a narrow coastal strip between the Santa Monica mountain range and the Pacific. This one, though, has been worse than any in more than a decade because of unusually low rainfall over the past two years and because of the severity of the seasonal desert winds, known as the Santa Anas.
Those winds – notorious for their effect on human behaviour, including a tendency to increase the murder rate – were the main engine of the fires which consumed more than 100,000 acres across the region. The blazes started in Malibu on Sunday, apparently as a result of sparks from two power lines which were knocked over by the winds.
Residents went through their well-practised fire drills as though it was the most normal thing in the world: sprinkling their houses and land with garden hoses, packing up a few suitcases and then hopping in their cars and leaving. Flames almost consumed a supermarket and pharmacy next to the Malibu Colony – the original beachside settlement beloved of Hollywood royalty – but were doused before they could spread further. The worst of the blazes were away from the beach, alongside canyon roads where dry brush and young trees crackled and burned with alarming ease.
There were a number of surreal, only-in-Malibu scenes. A gleaming silver Jaguar parked on a main road erupted in flames. Young starlets came out on to the Pacific Coast Highway with handkerchiefs over their faces. At Castle Kashan, the battlement-adorned mansion above Pepperdine University, its 79-year-old owner, Lilly Lawrence, suddenly appeared in a dressing gown, slippers and sunglasses to see what could be retrieved from the wreckage of her home.
Ms Lawrence, who is the daughter of a former Iranian oil minister and is known locally as Princess Lilly, was on the verge of selling her property for $17m.
She lost paintings, Fabergé eggs, the staircase where she kept a Cinderella-inspired glass slipper on a red carpet, and an extensive collection of Elvis memorabilia. "My possessions don't possess me. My house does not possess me," she said. "I'm thinking about our boys in Iraq."Reuse content