Firefighters struggled desperately to save emptied-out resort towns in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains as 200ft walls of flame engulfed dead and dried-out trees.
In San Diego County, the state’s largest fire claimed another victim when a firefighting crew was overcome by flames.
Firefighter Steven Rucker, 38, was killed while trying to save a home near Wynola. Three others were injured.
It marked the first firefighter death since the series of blazes began last week.
“It just swept right over them. They probably didn’t have time to get out of the way,” San Diego County Sheriff’s Sergeant Conrad Grayson said.
The death toll later reached 20 after authorities said two people were found dead yesterday as the result of the same San Diego County fire.
In the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds from the desert that had been whipping the fires into raging infernos eased yesterday.
But they gave way to stiff breezes off the ocean that pushed the flames up the canyon walls around evacuated mountain enclaves that are among southern California’s most popular mountain playgrounds.
“There’s fire on so many fronts, it’s not even manageable at this point,” said Chris Cade, a fire prevention technician with the US Forest Service, as he watched a pillar of smoke he estimated at 9,000ft rise into a hazy sky thick with ash. “I am at a loss what you can do about it.”
The fires have burned more than 620,000 acres and destroyed 2,100 homes. More than 12,000 firefighters and support crew were fighting what outgoing Governor Gray Davis said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced.
The fires burned in a broken arc across southern California, from Ventura County east to Los Angeles County and the San Bernardino Mountains and south to San Diego County.
About 100 fire engines encircled the historic mining town of Julian in the mountains of eastern San Diego County, hoping to save the popular weekend getaway community renowned for its vineyards and apple orchards.
But some two dozen engines and water tenders that were headed to Julian were forced to turn back when flames swept over a highway.
And as the winds picked up, floating embers sparked spot fires near the region of 3,500, forcing some crews to retreat.
South of Julian, about 90% of the homes had been destroyed in Cuyamaca, a lakeside town of about 160 residents. Charred cows lay by the side of the road and houses were reduced to little more than stone entryways.
San Diego County fire officials feared a 233,000-acre fire and the 50,000-acre blaze would merge into a huge, single blaze that would make it nearly impossible to keep it from reaching Julian.
Officials in San Diego County – where most of the deaths took place - predicted the death toll would rise after investigators began scouring devastated neighbourhoods.
In the San Bernardinos, the cool, moist ocean breezes confounded firefighters, just as the desert winds did over the weekend.
Heavy winds kept aircraft grounded in the area, and winds gusting to 60 mph pushed flames up from the mountain slopes into the dense forest.
“They turned around with the wind and the fuel and basically overran us,” San Bernardino County Fire Division Chief Mike Conrad said.
Some 80,000 full-time residents of the San Bernardinos have cleared out since the weekend, thousands of them winding their way in bumper-to-bumper traffic out a narrow highway.
Across the border in Mexico, wildfires kept students home from school yesterday in Baja California, but officials said the threat from fires appeared to be easing.