13 die as giant waves of flame devour homes in California

WILDFIRES driven by hot Santa Ana winds flared into gigantic waves of flame that devoured entire neighbourhoods, choking the sky over Southern California with smoke and ash, and killing at least 13 people, in the state's deadliest outbreak of fires in more than a decade.

The blazes triggered a harrowing flight to safety for thousands of residents, many of whom had little time to collect cherished possessions before escaping.

"I was grabbing wet towels. Fire was at our feet. It was blazing over our heads and burning everywhere," said Lisza Pontes, 43, recounting her Sunday morning escape from a fire in San Diego County.

From the Mexican border to the suburbs north of Los Angeles, large sections of the region were under siege by six major fires and many smaller blazes on Monday. More than 825 homes had been destroyed.

The death toll iwas the worst in the state since the 1991 fire in the Oakland hills of Alameda County, that killed 25 and destroyed more than 3,200 homes and apartments.

Airline travel was disrupted, major highways were blocked, and some schools were closed. A professional football game was shifted to Arizona.

Million-dollar homes disappeared in flames almost as fast as canyon brush in San Diego's affluent Scripps Ranch area.

In San Bernardino County, a blaze called the Old Fire, which had destroyed more than 400 homes, torched 25 more when it jumped a road, and moved into the heavily forested town of Crestline, fire information officer Candace Vialpando of the US Forest Service said Monday.

The wind subsided for a time during the night, but picked up again Monday morning in San Bernardino County, Vialpando said.

The Santa Ana wind season usually stretches from September through February, with October often the strongest. The area's rainy season could start any time, but heavier rain is not likely until January.

About 30,000 homes were endangered by the fires, which had consumed more than 330,000 acres, or 500 square miles of dense, dry brush and trees. More than 7,000 firefighters battled the spreading flames.

A state of emergency was declared in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura counties.

All of the fatalities happened since Saturday. Nine people were killed by the so-called Cedar Fire in San Diego County, the state's largest blaze.

About 260 homes were destroyed.

The San Diego County victims included two people who died inside their car as they apparently tried to escape the flames, which witnesses said moved so fast they didn't get any warning.

That fire was started on Saturday near the mountain town of Julian when a lost hunter set a signal fire, authorities said. The hunter may face charges.

Another fire near San Diego, that started on Sunday, killed two people, and destroyed 57 homes.

It also prompted evacuations in Northeastern Escondido.

Around the congested suburbs of San Bernardino, a city of about 200,000, some 50 miles east of Los Angeles, one flank of a nearly 80,000-acre fire burned through four towns, while the other flank destroyed more than 450 homes.

Two fires the Old Fire and the Grand Prix had merged on Sunday, creating a flame front 35 to 40 miles long.

Two men collapsed and died, one as he was evacuating his canyon home, and the other as he watched his house burn, the county coroner said.

Authorities said they were seeking two men for investigation of arson, and possibly murder, in connection with the San Bernardino fires. Three looters were arrested, police said.

About 24,000 homes were under threat from the fires on Monday, according to authorities.

Another 80,000-acre fire, northwest of Los Angeles in Ventura County, threatened approximately 2,000 homes, and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Firefighters were spread thinly around threatened communities, focusing on saving what homes they could. The gusty wind prevented the air tanker drops of retardant, and use of backfires that are key tactics of fire containment.

The area is vulnerable because drought, and an infestation of bark beetles, have killed millions of trees. And in some places, brush has not been trimmed by either fire or man for decades.

Fire forced the evacuation of a Federal Aviation Administration control centre in San Diego, disrupting air travel across the US.

Some airlines cancelled flights into the region.

The National Football League moved Monday night's football game between the Chargers and Miami Dolphins from Qualcomm Stadium, which is being used as an evacuation centre, to Tempe, Arizona.

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