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Southern California battles devastating wildfires

Metropolitan Los Angeles was seemingly surrounded by flames Saturday, with three wildfires consuming spacious mansions and tiny mobile homes at the edges where bone-dry wilderness meets burgeoning development.

world Updated: Nov 16, 2008 12:45 IST

Metropolitan Los Angeles was seemingly surrounded by flames Saturday, with three wildfires consuming spacious mansions and tiny mobile homes at the edges where bone-dry wilderness meets burgeoning development.

Notorious Santa Ana winds topping 75 mph (120 kph) carried flying embers on an erratic path, sometimes picking off just a house here and there on otherwise untouched Orange County streets of big, expensive homes and manicured lawns. The destruction was near total in other areas: Some 500 mobile homes in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley were transformed into a smoking wasteland. "I can't even read the street names because the street signs are melting," Los Angeles Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said at Oakridge Mobile Home Park.

Tens of thousands of residents have evacuated their homes in the valley, Santa Barbara County and along the Orange-Riverside county line. For millions of others, major freeways were shut down and the prospect of blackouts hung in the air like the smoke. No deaths were reported, but the Los Angeles police chief said he feared authorities might find bodies in the devastated mobile home park, which housed many senior citizens. Crews were waiting for the ground to cool before bringing in search dogs.

The series of fires have injured at least 20 people and destroyed hundreds of homes from coastal Santa Barbara to inland Riverside County, on the other side of the heavily populated Los Angeles area. Extreme fire conditions were expected to continue into Sunday morning, with humidity at just 10 percent to 15 percent and winds gusting to 45 mph (72 kph) through canyons.

Many heat records were set as the region withered under the Santa Anas. Downtown Los Angeles was 20 degrees above normal at a record 93 degrees (34 Celsius).

A blaze that ravaged the Sylmar community in the hillsides above Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley grew to more than 12 square miles (31 sq. kilometers) and was only 20 percent contained Saturday. It sent residents fleeing in the dark Saturday morning as it torched cars, bone-dry brush and much of the mobile home park. The blaze, whose cause was under investigation, threatened at least 1,000 structures, city Fire Department spokeswoman Melissa Kelley said. A burned resident was in serious condition, and four firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles. Fire officials estimated 10,000 people were under orders to evacuate.

Lucretia Romero said she saw smoke above the hills beyond the front door and then, within an hour, saw that a canyon across from her home was red with flame.

"They would drop water, the water would squash the flames and then two minutes later the flames would come back," she said. Firefighters soon banged on the door and gave them 10 minutes to evacuate.

The wind carried the fire across the mobile home park so fast that firefighters had to flee, grabbing some residents and leaving hoses melted into the concrete.

Police Chief William Bratton said cars were found in the debris at the mobile home park, raising concerns that bodies might be found.

The Santa Anas _ dry winds that typically blow through Southern California between October and February _ tossed embers ahead of flames, jumping two interstate highways and sparking new flare-ups. Walls of flame raced up ridge lines covered in sun-baked brush and surrounded high-power transmission line towers.

The shifting winds caused the fire to move uphill toward the San Gabriel Mountains, downhill toward homes and sometimes skip across canyons. It also jumped across Interstates 5 and 210, forcing the California Highway Patrol to shut down portions of both freeways and some connecting roads for parts of the day.

And more than 50 homes, some of them apparently mansions, were damaged or destroyed in a fire in Orange and Riverside counties, officials said. More than 3 square miles (8 sq. kilometers) were charred, with more than 12,000 people ordered to evacuate in Anaheim alone.

In Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles, more than 180 homes burned to the ground Thursday in the wealthy, star-studded community of Montecito.

Hundreds of firefighters continued to battle the blaze in the enclave, said Santa Barbara city fire spokesman John Ahlman. Several multimillion-dollar homes and a small Christian college were damaged in Montecito, a town of 14,000 that has attracted celebrities such as Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas and Oprah Winfrey. More than 5,400 homes were evacuated. The cause of that fire is under investigation. At least 13 people were injured.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus in Yorba Linda, Thomas Watkins, Denise Petski, Alicia Chang, Bob Jablon and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles, and Amy Taxin in Montecito.

First Published: Nov 16, 2008 12:42 IST