LOS ANGELES (AFP) — Hundreds of thousands of people fled as out-of-control wildfires raged across California on Monday, threatening homes and stretching emergency services to breaking point.
At least 13 fires were blazing throughout southern California with thousands of firefighters struggling to contain flames that have ripped through tinder-try hills and parkland following months of record low rainfalls.
One person has been killed, more than 20 people injured and 90,000 acres (36,500 hectares) destroyed in the wind-fueled fires, which forced the evacuation of an estimated 250,000 people in San Diego county alone.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has declared states of emergency across several counties, described the crisis as a "tragedy" and said President George W. Bush had called to offer federal government support.
"It's a tragic time for California," Schwarzenegger said after touring charred remains of buildings in the celebrity enclave of Malibu.
Later Monday Schwarzenegger's office said 1,500 national guard soldiers had been deployed to help firefighters.
In addition to deploying firefighters on the ground, authorities bombarded the blazes from above using helicopters and airplanes to drop water and flame retardant.
Fire authorities admit they are struggling to control the fires and are grimly expecting the situation to worsen as powerful, hot desert winds gust across the region this week.
"These fires that are sweeping through Southern California are a perfect storm," said Los Angeles County supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
"The fire department and law enforcement personnel have been stressed almost beyond the point of reason because there are so many fires going, mutual aid has been stressed to their limits," he said.
"The winds are erratic and unpredictable. There is no telling where the fires will move and when."
Officials in San Diego County confirmed that an estimated 250,000 people had been evacuated as the fires raced towards built-up residential areas.
San Diego County Sheriffs revealed that a total of 194,673 households had been evacuated in rural areas across the region.
Among the evacuees were prison inmates and hospital patients, while several schools were also closed.
Some evacuees were sent to Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers' American football team. One woman, Nancy Canfield, said she was relieved to have escaped with her family, which included her baby grandchildren.
When she left her home the air quality was "horrible," she told the San Diego Union Tribune. "By the time we got from the house to the car, the babies' faces were covered in soot," she said. "I'm just thankful we all got out, we're all safe. I don't care about anything else."
San Diego Fire Rescue spokesman Maurice Luque said the wildfires were more serious than the blazes which ravaged California in 2003, leaving 22 people dead and destroying 3,000 homes.
"We believe this is worse than 2003," Luque told AFP. "The winds have been just incessant, continuous. The focal point is constantly changing, which makes them extremely difficult to tackle."
In Malibu, residents were struggling to come to terms with damage inflicted by the blaze on Sunday, when the Malibu Presbyterian Church and the 17-million-dollar Malibu Castle were razed to the ground on Sunday.
Thousands of residents have been evacuated, including the homes of "Titanic" director James Cameron and "Grease" movie star Olivia Newton-John among those evacuated.
TMZ.com reported that the exclusive Promises rehabilitation center, which has hosted troubled stars Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, was being evacuated.
The causes of the different fires raging throughout the state varied, with a
fallen power line believed to be the cause of the blaze in Malibu while arson was blamed for a fire in Orange County that torched 7,500 acres.
One person was killed and four firefighters were seriously injured while trying to protect a home from fire in Potrero, 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of San Diego, the fire department said. Seventeen people were injured.
Early Monday the fire had ripped through 20,000 acres of brush and was threatening 1,500 structures as it raced to the Mexico border, a spokeswoman from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told AFP.
Many parts of California, including Los Angeles, have experienced record low rainfalls this year, leaving hundreds of thousands of acres of countryside at the mercy of wildfires.
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