A raging California wildfire continued to grow on Tuesday, burning more than 48,000 hectares and sending an ominous plume of smoke over the Los Angeles metropolis.
The Station Fire, just 25 km north of Los Angeles, was only five per cent contained as of Tuesday morning. Fire officials were cautiously optimistic that cooler temperatures and higher humidity would help them slow the spread of the blaze.
"We are still at five per cent containment, however with firefighting activity that occurred last night and the last several days, I expect that will increase substantially today," said Mike Dietrich, incident commander for the US Forest Service.
"The good news is that it's humidity," Dietrich said. "The bad news is that it may produce lightning, possibly dry lightning, over parts of the fire area."
The massive fire is the largest of several causing havoc in the region after a six-day heat wave. Two firefighters have died, 14 more have been injured and 53 homes have been destroyed so far. Officials estimate it could be weeks before the blaze is brought under control. An estimated 12,000 homes are threatened by the blaze.
Some 3,600 firefighters are battling the fires, setting backfires, and cutting huge firebreaks with bulldozers to prevent the spread of flames. But the heavy smoke meant that the dozens of helicopters and firefighting aircraft were unable to operate.
As they struggled to deal with the death of their comrades, firefighters also had to deal with the dangers of residents who refused to leave their homes despite the evacuation orders to over 6,000 homes. Five such residents on a ranch near Gold Creek remained stranded on Tuesday after they appealed for rescue, as heavy smoke and strong winds made it impossible for a helicopter to reach them.
Further to the south, the Oak Glen Fire threatened 2,000 homes in San Bernardino County as dry and hot conditions across the region fanned flames that raced through tinder-dry brush. It was 40 per cent contained, but 100 structures remained under threat.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the base of operations battling the blaze and noted the difficult conditions hindering firefighting, including temperatures near 35 degrees Celsius and dry brush that had not burned for years.
On Friday, Schwarzenegger had declared a state of emergency to speed relief efforts. He said that across the state eight major fires were burning, with 5,700 firefighters on the lines, aided by 46 helicopters and 10 aircraft.
"Fires are burning from the north - the northern border of California - all the way south, and from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra Nevada (mountain range)," said Schwarzenegger. "We have fires everywhere. We have eight large fires around the state of California right now. But the firefighters have fanned out across California and they're doing an amazing job."
"We are doing everything we can to save lives."
Elsewhere in the state, a fire destroyed 11 homes north east of Sacramento and 100 homes were threatened, while one home had been destroyed in a 2,500-hectare blaze near Pinnacles National Monument in Monterey County. A further 50 homes were threatened by a 1,700-hectare blaze in Yosemite National Park that was 50 per cent contained.