Thousands of people were being evacuated from houses, nursing homes and a hospital as brush fires fanned by fierce desert winds swept across Southern California today.
Firefighters were struggling to combat the blazes that rapidly engulfed the region, killing one person.
In many cases, crews could not begin to fight the fires because they were too busy rescuing residents who refused to leave.
In the San Diego area hundreds of patients were removed from a hospital and many more from nursing homes as they flames threatened to cause disaster.
Several new fires sprouted overnight, adding to about a dozen blazes that have already burned 40,000 acres.
The fires, which are expected to burn for another three days and covered swaths of drought-parched land from the high desert to the Pacific Ocean, inflicted some of the worst damage in Malibu, where a church, homes and a castle were burned.
Firefighters acknowledged they were overwhelmed, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency last night in seven counties.
One person died in a fire near San Diego, which burned more than 14,000 acres just north of the Mexican border town of Tecate.
Twenty-five homes in the suburbs around Santa Clarita, Los Angeles, were destroyed.
Another blaze devoured more than 5,000 acres in northern San Diego County and forced the evacuation of the community of Ramona, which has a population of about 36,000.
Several buildings were burned on the edge of town and sheriff's deputies called residents to alert them the fire was approaching .
"The winds are up, it's very, very dangerous conditions," San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said. "Fires are popping up all over the place."
Several new wildfires broke out in San Diego County early today, officials said, and at least seven blazes were active in the county.
A fire in Orange County that grew to 8,800 acres was believed to be arson.
In Malibu, about 700 firefighters worked to protect hundreds of homes in several exclusive communities nestled in the hills. About 1,500 people were evacuated and the blaze destroyed a church and several homes, one of them the landmark Castle Kashan, a stately fortress-like home with turrets and arched windows.
The castle is owned by Lilly Lawrence, daughter of a former Iranian oil minister. She said she was able to gather a few things before the fire engulfed her home, including some jewellery and memorabilia that included Elvis Presley's Army fatigues.
Winds carried embers across the Pacific Coast Highway, closing the road and setting fire to cars and trees in a shopping centre.
"This fire is 0% contained, which means we're at the mercy of the wind," acting Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich said.