With wind-driven flames threatening the densely populated areas near Los Angeles, firefighters dug today for another brutal day battling one of the most destructive and deadly wildfire outbreaks in California history.
At least 17 deaths were blamed on the fires, 15 in southern California and two in Mexico, as at least six separate blazes were scattered along an arc from the suburbs north-west of Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico, about 60 miles south of the border.
At least 1,137 homes had been destroyed in California.
The fires have consumed burned than 512,000 acres of brush, forest and homes - or about 800 square miles, roughly three-quarters the total area of the island of Cyprus.
“You can dream up horror movies, and they wouldn’t be this bad,” said Gene Zimmerman, supervisor of the San Bernardino National Forest, where two of the most destructive fires began last week.
A blaze in San Bernardino County called the Old Fire, which began near the forest on Saturday, has destroyed at least 450 homes and been blamed for the deaths of two people. It was 10% contained today.
Some of the fires were believed started by arsonists.
Many of those who died ignored evacuation orders and were caught by flames because they waited until the last minute to flee, Sheriff Bill Kolender said.
“When you are asked to leave, do it immediately,” he said. “Do not wait.”
More than 10,000 firefighters were battling the flames, which by today had already cost the state more than $24m (€20m).
“This will be the most expensive fire in California history, both in loss of property and the cost of fighting it,” said Dallas Jones, director of the state Office of Emergency Services.
One advantage firefighters appeared to be taking into the battle was a decrease in the Santa Ana wind. The hot, dry wind that blows from the desert to the sea this time of year had gusted to as much as 70 mph in recent days, pushing fires down on homes.
One of the biggest fire fights today was unfolding in the Santa Susana Mountains that separate Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, where 1.3 million people live, from Simi Valley in neighbouring Ventura County to the west.
That fire, which has destroyed 16 homes since it began Saturday, was burning dangerously close to a gated community of million-dollar mansions in Los Angeles’ Chatsworth section.
Conditions were equally grim in San Diego County, where ash from three large fires fell on the beaches like snow and drivers had turn on their headlights during the day.
The 15 people killed in the United States were the most in the state since the devastating Oakland Hills fire that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes in October 1991.
Olympic sprint gold medallist Maurice Greene had to evacuate his mansion near Simi Valley.
“We have to put it in God’s hands. That’s all we can do,” he said as he left.