Residents, celebrities forced to flee as California burns

As firefighters work to tackle blazes, authorities warn of worse to come with no rain and high winds forecast.

    California is battling dangerous fires at both ends of the state that have forced thousands to evacuate. [Ringo HW Chiu/AP Photo]
    California is battling dangerous fires at both ends of the state that have forced thousands to evacuate. [Ringo HW Chiu/AP Photo]

    Fires swept through the hills of Los Angeles where many celebrities live on Monday, destroying several large homes and forcing thousands of people to flee, as a blaze in California’s wine country in the United States exploded in size.

    The flames that roared up a steep hillside near the J Paul Getty Museum in the Los Angeles' district of Brentwood showed the scale of the danger the state faces amid strong winds at both ends of the state on the US's west coast that threaten to turn any spark into a devastating inferno.

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    No deaths from either blaze were reported, but a firefighter was seriously injured in the fire in Sonoma County wine country. Authorities later said he was in a stable condition.

    Some 2.2 million people were left without electricity after California's biggest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, shut it off over the weekend in the northern part of the state to prevent its equipment from sparking blazes during windy weather.

    The company admitted on Monday that despite the outages, its power lines may have started two smaller fires over the weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as the one in Sonoma County.

    Thousands evacuate

    That blaze, which broke out last week amid the vineyards and wineries north of San Francisco, grew to at least 300 square kilometres (116 square miles), destroying 123 buildings including 57 homes, damaging a further dozen homes and threatening 90,000 more structures, authorities said.

    In the wine country, farm workers who toil in the vineyards were among those displaced, while in Los Angeles, basketball player LeBron James and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger were driven from their homes.

    Others with homes in the evacuation zone include Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat running for president, who was not home at the time, and rapper and producer Dr Dre.

    David Boyle, 78, awoke at 3am (10:00 GMT) to his doorbell ringing and police officers pounding on the front door. They warned him the wildfire was advancing towards his house near the Getty complex.

    "They said: 'You need to evacuate.' I'm like: 'When?' They said,:'Now,'" Doyle said.

    US California fires
    More than 1,100 firefighters are working to tackle the blazes in the western US state. [Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP Photo]

    He grabbed dog food and his wife's jewellery and hustled his dogs out the door. They went to a recreation centre.

    "It's a fact of life when you live in this area," he said. "Every place has some problem with disasters. People talk about earthquakes here, but I don't think it's as bad as hurricane season."

    The evacuation area extended west into Pacific Palisades, encompassing some of the most exclusive property in California, where celebrities and wealthy professionals live in estates nestled in canyons or on ridgetop retreats that cost tens of millions of dollars but are surrounded by tinder-dry vegetation.

    Hours after homes had burned, some of the more than 1,100 firefighters battling the flames were hosing down smouldering ruins.

    The Getty, with its collection of priceless art, was not threatened, fire officials said. The museum gave assurances that its artworks were protected by state-of-the-art technology.

    But Mount St Mary's University evacuated 450 students from its nearby campus. And the University of California, Los Angeles, cancelled classes - not because of any direct threat from the flames but because of disruptions caused by the fire.

    US California fires
    Northern parts of California have also been affected by serious fires. Wtih no rain and high winds forecast, authorities warn the situation could get worse. [Noah Berger/AP Photo]

    No rain, more wind 

    In Northern California, some 40 school districts in Sonoma County cancelled classes, as did the University of California, Berkeley, which had no power because of the outages.

    With no rain and more wind in the forecast, the coming days could be grim.

    "This is when we have the most potential for large and damaging fires," said Thom Porter, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "All of California is in play right now."

    PG&E says starting early on Tuesday it will begin shutting off power to 605,000 customers - about 1.5 million people - in 29 counties, even as it restores power to other areas.

    The state’s Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency over the weekend.

    SOURCE: AP news agency