Wildfires rage across southern California

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Nearly a dozen wildfires driven by powerful Santa Ana winds spread across southern California, killing one person near San Diego, destroying several homes and a church in celebrity-laden Malibu, and forcing an entire community to evacuate.





The Malibu fire was among at least 10 blazes that burned more than 35,000 acres, stretching from north of Santa Barbara to San Diego, as hot weather and hurricane-strength winds marked the height of the traditional wildfire season. Late yesterday, Govenor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in seven southern California counties.



Four firefighters and at least 10 other people were injured and taken to hospitals in connection with the fire near San Diego, said Matt Streck, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry. Details on the death were not immediately available.



The blaze burned more than 14,000 acres near a highway about 70 miles southeast of San Diego, just north of the Mexican border town of Tecate, Streck said. Some of the injured were hikers, and others may be illegal immigrants, Streck said.



A second blaze charred more than 5,000 acres in northern San Diego County near an area that was ravaged by a pair of wildfires in 2003 and forced the evacuation of the city of Ramona, which has a population of about 15,000.



Several structures were burned on the edge of town and the sheriff's deputies called residents to alert them the fire was approaching the city, said San Diego sheriff's Lt. Phil Brust.



"I can't ever remember doing this," Brust said of notifying the town to evacuate. "This fire is crazy."



In northeastern Los Angeles County, a fire that started near Agua Dulce burned about 10,000 acres in just a few hours as about 250 firefighters tried to get a handle on it.



At least 10 structures burned, but probably "many" more than that, said county Fire Inspector Sam Padilla. Between 500 and 800 people fled the area, and three people were injured.



"It's dark out there and the fire's moving fast so they can't count at this point," Padilla said.



Meanwhile, in Malibu, about 700 firefighters worked to protect about 200 homes in several upscale communities nestled in the hills, officials said. About 1,500 people fled the fires, officials said.



The blaze, which started in Malibu Canyon, had charred at least 1,200 acres and destroyed a church and several homes, one of them a landmark castle. No residents or firefighters were injured, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said.



The winds carried embers across the Pacific Coast Highway, closing the popular road and setting fire to cars and trees in the parking lot of a shopping centre where a supermarket, chemist and other shops were damaged. It briefly threatened Pepperdine University.



TV footage showed several buildings in flames in the area, including clusters of beach-side homes.



"This fire is zero percent contained, which means we're at the mercy of the wind," acting Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich said.

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