Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated and thousands of homes remain at risk tonight as wildfires tear through southern California, US authorities said.
Homes were ablaze from the beaches of Malibu – where celebrities including Barbra Streisand, Mel Gibson and record company executive David Geffen have houses – to the mountain retreats east of Los Angeles and south to Orange and San Diego counties to Mexico.
President George Bush declared a federal emergency as temperatures are still set to increase and conditions worsen as the gusts of the Santa Ana wind fanning the blazes increase in strength.
Mr Bush said: “All of us across this nation are concerned for the families who have lost their homes, and the many families who have been evacuated from their homes.
“We send our prayers and thoughts with those who’ve been affected, and we send the help of the federal government as well.”
As the fires burned for a third day, two people have died as at least a dozen wildfires destroyed more than 1,200 homes and businesses.
At least 346,000 homes were evacuated in San Diego County alone, sheriff’s officials said.
But the total could be much higher, and state officials were still struggling to estimate how many people have fled.
Since they began on Sunday, the fires have burned at least 245,957 acres, or 384 square miles – an area larger than New York City.
Walls of flame whipped from mountain passes to the edges of California’s celebrated coastline, spreading so quickly that even hotels serving as temporary shelters for evacuees had to be evacuated.
Among those affected, British actress Jane Seymour said her husband James Keach was fighting the fire around their Malibu home.
On her way to ABC’s studio to film Dancing With The Stars, she told showbiz website People.com: “As you can see, my husband is not here.
“The fire is close to our home, and there was a mandatory evacuation. My husband is illegally there, fighting the fire.”
Asked how she managed to focus on her dancing, Seymour, 56, said: “With great difficulty. I actually decided to abandon my cell phone. I told a friend if there’s something I need to know, then let me know.”
Areas around San Diego and Lake Arrowhead, to the north east of Los Angeles, have suffered the worst damage so far, but dangerous blazes also threaten Malibu, parts of Orange and Ventura counties, and the Agua Dulce area near Santa Clarita.
As the fires spread, most out of control, smaller blazes were merging into larger, more fearsome ones.
Evacuations were being announced in one community after another as firefighters found themselves overwhelmed by the gale-force Santa Ana winds, some gusting to 70mph.
The winds – which sweep through southern California’s canyons in autumn and winter – are stronger than normal, turning already parched scrubland into tinder.
Fire crews and fleeing residents described desperate conditions that were sure to get worse.
San Diego Sheriff’s Lieutenant Mike McClain said deputies arrested two men for looting in the community of Ramona, and there were a handful of other looting cases reported.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called it “a tragic time for California” and pledged to do everything in his power to assist the firefighting effort and help those who have lost their homes.
A 52-year-old man died in the fires in San Diego County on Sunday afternoon and an unidentified civilian died of burns in a fire in Santa Clarita, the US Forest Service said.
Overall, 42 people were injured, 16 of them firefighters, since the blazes began on Sunday.
In Malibu, firefighters helicopters dropped water on the neighbourhood of Friends actress Courteney Cox and sprayed protective foam on the home of Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation.
He told the New York Post: “It’s been very touch-and-go for the last 24 hours.”
A spokeswoman for Sting said he left Malibu after the fire destroyed his neighbour’s house.
Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer and Victoria Principal also abandoned their homes, all of which were dangerously close to the flames.
At Miramar Marines airfield, the former home of the navy’s Top Gun pilots, about 40 aircraft that included F-18 fighter jets, C-130 cargo planes and Marine helicopters were evacuated to other bases in California and Arizona.
Temperatures across southern California were above average and approached 100F (37.8C) today in Orange and San Diego counties.
The fires were exploding and shooting embers in all directions, preventing crews from forming traditional fire lines and severely limiting aerial bombardment.
San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders pleaded for donations of blankets, cots, pillows and food for the people staying there.
Luis Monteagudo, a spokesman for the county’s emergency effort, said: “It’s basically a mass migration here in San Diego County.”
Captain Don Camp, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said: “Lifesaving is our priority. Getting people out from in front of the fire – those have been our priorities.”
Thousands of residents sought shelter at fairgrounds, schools and community centres.
The largest gathering was at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, where evacuees anxiously watched the stadium’s television sets, hoping for a glimpse of their neighbourhood on the local news.
Satellite images released by Nasa showed the extent of the smoke which has engulfed the west coast of America since the wildfires broke out.
The body of a 52-year-old man from Tecate, a town on the US side of the border south east of San Diego, was found on Sunday afternoon.
The wildfires evoked memories of the blazes that tore through southern California four years ago this month, killing 22 and destroying 3,640 homes.