Celebrities evacuate as California fires spread

Celebrities like Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer and Victoria Principal have been forced to flee their homes in Southern California driven out by unstoppable brush fires that are devastating the region.

Celebrities like Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer and Victoria Principal have been forced to flee their homes in Southern California driven out by unstoppable brush fires that are devastating the region.

At least 655 homes have burned down and 168 businesses and other buildings were destroyed.

Thousands of other buildings were threatened by at least 14 blazes covering 240,000 acres, or about 374 square miles.

One person has died and at least 16 firefighters and 25 others have been injured since the blazes began on Sunday.

Firefighters said conditions would get worse, with hotter temperatures and high winds forecast for today.

Californian officials pleaded for help from fire departments in other US states, while warning at least 265,000 people to leave homes located from San Diego to Malibu, more than 150 miles up the coast.

Early today fire officials said that 500 homes and 100 commercial properties had been destroyed by a fire in northern San Diego County.

More fires razed 130 homes in the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles.

Firefighters, who lost valuable time trying to persuade stubborn homeowners to leave, struggled as winds gusting to 70 mph scattered embers onto dry brush, starting spot fires.

Hundreds of patients were moved by school bus and ambulance from a hospital and nursing homes in Orange County, some in hospital gowns and wheelchairs. Others carried their medical records in clear plastic bags.

A thousand prisoners in an Orange County jail were evacuated to other secure holdings because of heavy smoke.

In San Diego County, where at least four fires burned, more than 200,000 residents were warned to leave their homes.

About 10,000 of them ended up at Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers football team.

They huddled in silence while watching TV news reports.

Many had to gather in the car park with their pets, which were banned from the stadium.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived last night to meet some of them.

He said the government had pledged "everything we need".

"They have responded much more quickly than what we've heard in the past," he said.

Asked how the disaster would unfold, he said "No one knows. We are relying very much on the weather."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was sending cots, blankets and other supplies, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

The coastal Del Mar Fairgrounds were also turned into an evacuation centre, along with high schools and senior centres. The Marine base at Camp Pendleton also took in locals.

Black smoke blanketed much of northern San Diego and nearby suburbs as flames danced around homes in Rancho Bernardo, a community with many elderly people.

"It was like Armageddon. It looked like the end of the world," San Diego firefighter Mitch Mendler said, as he and his crew refilled their water truck from a hydrant.

Firefighters complained that their efforts to stop the flames were delayed when they were confronted by people who refused to leave their homes.

"Those folks who are making those decisions are actually stripping fire resources," said Bill Metcalf, a fire boss.

Tom Sollie, 49, ignored evacuation orders in Rancho Bernardo to help neighbours spray roofs on his street with water. His home was untouched, but he watched a neighbour's house reduced to nothing but the remnants of a brick chimney.

"The house went up like a Roman candle," Sollie said.

As flames, smoke and ash filled the air around San Diego County's Lake Hodges, Stan Smith also stayed behind to help his neighbour Ken Morris rescue his horses.

"It's hard to leave all your belongings and take off," Smith said.

"I heard the cops come by, and I just ducked," Morris said.

Roads, canals and other features normally act as firebreaks. But the towering flames and flying embers rendered them useless this time.

Fire near the San Diego Wild Animal Park led authorities to move condors, a cheetah, snakes and other animals to the park's fire-resistant veterinary hospital. Large animals, such as elephants and antelope, were left in irrigated enclosures. The world-famous San Diego Zoo was not immediately threatened.

Governor Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in seven affected counties.

He has also called up 1,500 California National Guardsmen and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said their main jobs would be to prevent looting and help with evacuations.

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