LOS ANGELES, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Ten wind-driven wildfires raged across Southern California on Monday, keeping thousands of evacuees from returning home for a second day, while authorities forecast two more days of extreme fire conditions.
At daybreak in the seaside celebrity enclave of Malibu, flames licked up against the sides of palatial homes and helicopter reporters estimated at least 20 homes were in danger. Ten buildings were lost on Sunday, including a landmark castle and a church.
“It’s been very touch-and-go for the last 24 hours. It was literally right up to the doorsteps yesterday afternoon,” Malibu resident Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation, told Reuters.
“I‘m in Chicago right now so I don’t know the latest, but it’s obviously very, very scary for all of us out there.”
To the south in San Diego County, where one person died on Sunday and 17 were injured, fires multiplied overnight to seven including one along the Mexican border. All 36,000 residents of the inland town of Ramona were ordered to evacuate.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for seven counties from Santa Barbara down to San Diego. He was scheduled to visit communities affected by the fires on Monday.
Fire officials speculate that the Malibu fire might have been sparked by power lines downed by the wind, while in Orange County, Fire Chief Chip Prather said a big fire that threatened the city of Irvine was arson.
The famously fierce Santa Ana winds were forecast to gust through the mountain passes and canyons at up to 90 mph (145 kph) on Monday, while temperatures were set to reach over 90 degrees F (32 C) during the day.
“It was fairly obvious that Mother Nature was in control,” said Patrick Hall, a Red Cross volunteer who went out overnight to watch for possible flare-ups over the mountains from Malibu.
“I am over 200 pounds (90 kg) and the guy next to me was more than that and we had trouble standing.”
Southern California is in the midst of its driest year on record after rainfall just a fifth of average levels. Meanwhile brush was abundant after growth in previous years with more moisture.
Total acreage burned was in the tens of thousands with one fire north of Los Angeles alone reported at 29,000 acres (12,000 hectares).
In Malibu, a city of 13,000 where celebrities flock to private beachfront homes and horse ranches up in the hills, 1,500 people were evacuated along with horses. The main coastal highway remained closed to traffic from the north and south.
Additional reporting by Dana Ford in Malibu and Nichola Groom in Los Angeles