The homes and lives of 3,000 families are reduced to ashes

At least 20 killed and more than 3,000 homes lost in devastating conflagration
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The Independent US

"Welcome to my humble estate," said an improbably cheery George Spellman, as he pointed to the pile of burned-out rubble and incinerated household appliances that was once his dream home on the slopes of the San Bernardino mountains. With California still counting the toll of the worst wildfires in its history, he hardly needed to play the victim; the evidence was clearly arrayed before him.

Only the chimney stack remained intact, its height giving some clue as to the proportions of the spacious two-storey home that stood on this spot until the moment of conflagration at 4am last Sunday morning. Surveying the ruins, one could make out the shell of the washing machine and dryer, something that might have been a fridge or freezer, and a few wrought-iron terrace chairs.

Everything else was utterly destroyed - every last possession Mr Spellman, his wife and grand-daughter had in the world. They had no insurance. They receive only a slim pension from the local sheriff's department, where Mr Spellman worked, among other things, as a firefighter. He had been counting on selling his collection of antique weapons and silver belt buckles - some of them bought, others won in craps games - to see him through retirement. But his mementos have melted to nothing.

An 1830 Sante Fe Hawkins rifle lay on the ground, reduced to a spindle. The family is still living on the property, after a fashion - in a small caravan Mr Spellman previously used for weekend hunting expeditions. And they are surviving largely on the charity of neighbours, local churches, businesses and benefactors who have seen them on local television.

In common with many of the victims of last week's fires, they are not complaining. They are glad to be alive.

They had just one hour's notice to clear out when the police called in the early hours of last Sunday morning. George's wife Sherry and grand-daughter Terra drove off so fast they left behind the suitcase full of clothes and family photographs they had thrown together. George stayed to see off his numerous animals - chickens, turtle doves and dogs - which were picked up by animal rescue workers within 20 minutes.

He then fancied he would stay to defend his property, soaking the hillside with hoses and standing guard with a fire extinguisher. But he realised the absurdity of his enterprise as soon as he heard the deafening roar of the firestorm, and saw the wall of flames extending 300ft into the night sky. "It was as loud as a jet plane. And it was unbearably hot, like someone had a blowtorch pointed at you," he said, still sounding shocked at the memory. "I've done two tours in Vietnam and twice come under napalm attack, and I'm telling you - napalm just isn't that hot."

Mr Spellman turned and ran down the hill as fast as he could, but the fire was sucking all the oxygen out of the air and he collapsed in a pasture no more than 200 yards from his house. A fire truck rescued him and whisked him to safety past eight burning houses. In the end, not so much as a hair of his thick walrus moustache was singed.

Extraordinary stories have become commonplace over the past week, as the fires have raged all the way from this north-eastern corner of the Los Angeles suburbs down to the mountains east of San Diego. More than 3,000 homes have been lost, tens of thousands of people evacuated, and 800,000 acres consumed. At least 20 people have died.

Even after earthquakes, mudslides and other past calamities, it still seems incredible that southern California, with its wealth and status, should be vulnerable to the whims of nature. But the past week has been a stern reminder that this is volatile, inhospitable terrain that no amount of mini-mall construction can conceal.

The fires may have been started by arsonists and fanned by the notorious desert winds, but they were also a disaster waiting to happen as suburban development has moved into mountain areas covered in dry forest. After years of drought, bark beetle infestation and underfunding for forest management, the San Bernardino mountains were a tinderbox waiting to be lit.

The politicians have all been crying out for reform and funding - including Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's new governor-elect, who flew with a begging bowl to Washington in mid-week - but it is far from clear that anything can be done to stop calamities recurring so long as people keep building. Just north of the Spellmans' home in Devore, there are plans for a vast 10,000-acre development called Summit Valley.

Not only is the site a major fire risk, it also sits right on the San Andreas earthquake fault. But this is southern California, and catastrophe, it seems, is regarded as a risk people are prepared to take in pursuit of their dreams.