17 Nov 2008

Winds ease as firefighters battle California wildfires

3:33 pm on 17 November 2008

Fires raged for a fourth day in southern California but winds have eased slightly, allowing firefighters more time to bring forest fires under control.

The fires have destroyed more than 800 houses, and forced some 50,000 people to flee, in what are described as the worst fires to hit Los Angeles in nearly half a century.

Firefighters hope to put out the fires in the next few days.

A fourth major blaze ripped through tinder-dry bush in San Bernardino County, southeast of Los Angeles, on Sunday, forcing dozens of people from their homes, firefighters said.

Elsewhere, wildfires scorched 7,200 hectares in foothills north of Los Angeles, in hillsides in Orange County to the south, and in the celebrity enclave of Montecito near Santa Barbara.

Weary firefighters battled record high temperatures and hot Santa Ana winds under smoky orange skies.

But weather forecasters said that wind gusts of up to 50 kilometres an hour that sent embers flying for kilometres during the past three days had died down on Sunday, although firefighters expected it would take days to contain most of the blazes.

California's fire season, which traditionally ran from June to October, has been a year-round menace for several years because of perennial drought.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has pleaded with residents to help save electricity to avoid outages and to evacuate if they were in the fire's path.

Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency for four counties, allowing state resources to be used to fight the fires.

Celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe, Michael Douglas and John Cleese are among the homeowners on the Santa Barbara coast.

Those reported to have lost houses in the community dubbed "America's Riviera" included actor Christopher Lloyd, best known as the zany scientist in the Back to the Future movies.

Large swathes of the picturesque community, one of the nation's priciest, were turned into charred, grey landscapes where gates and walls surrounded piles of rubble - all that remained of multi-million-dollar houses.