MALIBU, Calif. – Out-of-control wildfires threatened thousands of Southern California homes Monday, as firefighters raced to beat back the blazes that have engulfed the region, killing one, destroying buildings and forcing thousands to evacuate.
The fires, which covered swaths of drought-parched land from the high desert to the Pacific Ocean, were being fanned by hot, dry Santa Ana desert winds. Some of the worst damage was in Malibu, where a church, homes and a castle were charred.
Things got worse early Monday, when several new fires sprouted in San Diego county, adding to about a dozen blazes that have already burned more than 40,000 acres. Though firefighters had been on high alert because forecasters predicted the winds, they admitted Sunday night that they were overwhelmed.
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"You do not expect something to stretch our resources to this magnitude," Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Sam Padilla said. "To try and staff something this big, you cannot predict it."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency late Sunday in seven counties. One person died in a fire near San Diego, which burned more than 14,000 acres — or about 22 square miles — about 70 miles southeast of San Diego, just north of the Mexican border town of Tecate, California Department of Forestry spokesman Matt Streck said.
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Four firefighters and at least 10 other people were hospitalized, Streck said. Some of the injured were hikers, and others may be illegal immigrants.
Another blaze devoured more than 5,000 acres in northern San Diego County and forced the evacuation of the community of Ramona, which has a population of about 36,000.
Several structures were burned on the edge of town and sheriff's deputies called residents to alert them the fire was approaching the city, said San Diego sheriff's Lt. Phil Brust.
"The winds are up, it's very, very dangerous conditions," San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said. "Fires are popping up all over the place."
In Malibu, about 700 firefighters worked to protect hundreds of homes in several upscale communities nestled in the hills. About 1,500 people were evacuated and the blaze destroyed a church and several homes, one of them the landmark Castle Kashan, a stately fortress-like home with turrets and arched windows. Chunks of brick fell from the exterior of the burning building overlooking the coast.
No residents or firefighters were injured, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said.
The castle belonged to Lilly Lawrence, the daughter of a former Iranian oil minister. She said she was able to gather a few things before the fire engulfed her home, including some jewelry and memorabilia that included Elvis Presley's Army fatigues.
She didn't seem too worried about losing most of her belongings in the fire.
"My parents taught me not to allow my possessions to posses me," Lawrence told KABC-TV. "So, that's the story. The house is a house."
Winds carried embers across the Pacific Coast Highway, closing the popular road and setting fire to cars and trees in the parking lot of a shopping center where a supermarket, drug store and other shops were damaged.
"This fire is zero percent contained, which means we're at the mercy of the wind," acting Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich said.
In all, five homes and two commercial buildings had been confirmed lost throughout the Malibu area, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said. Nine more homes were damaged, he said.
The fire is expected to burn for another two to three days, he said. Until the blaze is extinguished, "there will literally be thousands of homes that will be threatened at one time or another," he said.
The fire may have been started by downed power lines, Capt. Mike Brown said.
"This is a conflagration we knew was going to come at some point," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said at a Malibu press conference Sunday, noting Southern California's ongoing dry spell. "We were cruising for a bruising. We are very, very lucky as we stand here tonight that the damage has been as limited as it has been."