Wildfire rages in California

Hundreds of homes burn and thousands of people are evacuated as hurricane-force winds whip inferno through LA’s foothills. Sadie Gray reports
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The Independent US

A fire whipped by hurricane-force winds has destroyed 165 houses in the foothills of Los Angeles and was threatening the power supply to the city last night. The wildfire was LA's most destructive in 10 years, said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, warning that it could engulf power lines into the city. "We may have to move to rolling blackouts," he said. The California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, declared a state of emergency.

More than 10,000 people were under orders to evacuate the area around the edge of the San Fernando Valley as the intense blaze continued to spread and firefighters battled to stop it reaching Santa Clarita, a dormitory town of 180,000 people 40 miles from the centre of LA.

Evacuees had to use minor roads after police closed Interstate 5, the main freeway between LA and the hills north of the city, home to almost 10 million people.

Thousands had already fled in the early hours of yesterday morning after the fire broke out near Sylmar, a town in the foothills, late on Friday. Flames fanned by a steady 35mph wind swept the flanks of the mountains; gusts of 75mph were recorded, and the clouds of smoke were large and dense enough to be picked up by weather satellites.

Jackie Burns, 77, described the scene as the fire destroyed her mobile home at 3am yesterday as looking "like the end of the world". Sitting with her husband, Len, in a Red Cross post in the gym at Sylmar High School, she said: "You could see absolutely nothing. It was like looking into a black hole."

The LA fire department said 1,000 buildings were threatened and 600 firefighters were struggling to protect homes from airborne embers. "Near-hurricane winds made it difficult for firefighters," said the department's deputy chief, Mario Rueda. The high winds overnight also grounded water-dropping aircraft.

The flames reached the borders of the Olive View-UCLA Medical Centre campus yesterday, causing a power cut. The back-up generators also failed, leaving staff operating hand-powered ventilators to keep critically ill patients alive until electricity was restored three hours later. "It was totally dark. There was dense smoke," said Olive View spokeswoman Carla Nino.

In Montecito, 90 miles to the north-west, a separate fire continued to burn out of control and had destroyed 111 homes. The mayor said up to 200 homes might have burned down.

The fire began on Thursday night, ripping through dry brush and stands of oil-rich eucalyptus trees, and more than 5,400 houses have been evacuated since.

Montecito is an enclave of celebrity mansions, and among those who fled the encroaching fire was the actor Rob Lowe, who left with his children as the flames engulfed the mountain above their home, only to have to help free their neighbours, who had become trapped behind their property's automatic gate when it stuck following a power cut. "Embers were falling. The wind was 70mph, and it was just like Armageddon," said Lowe. "You couldn't hear yourself think."

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