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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 October, 2003, 14:50 GMT
California fires threaten resorts
Firefighter in Running Springs in the San Bernardino mountains watches as smoke from forest fires
High winds have blown flames into the mountain forests
Firefighters in southern California are battling to save several historic resort towns from huge forest blazes which have left at least 20 people dead.

Authorities are trying to prevent the flames from reaching Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino mountains, from where thousands of people have been evacuated.

On Wednesday one firefighter was killed and three critically injured while battling blazes in the town of Julian further south in San Diego County.

More than 2,000 homes have been destroyed and more than 267,000 hectares (660,000 acres) of land scorched, with about 10 separate fires currently raging across the state.

Weather hopes

Winds gusting up to 60 miles per hour (97 kph) have blown flames into dense forest between Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake, two resort towns about 100 miles (160km) east of Los Angeles.

Ash falls like snowflakes and at midday the sky is red like dusk
Kara, Scotland / USA

The winds kept aircraft grounded in the area, hindering efforts to douse the flames from the air, the Associated Press news agency reported.

South of Julian the small lakeside town of Cuyamaca was almost completely destroyed by fire, leaving many of its residents destitute.

The corpses of charred cows lay by the side of the town's roads and many houses were reduced to little more than stone driveways.

However, firefighters managed to save the historic 19th Century oil town of Mentryville near Santa Clarita, about 38 miles (60km) north-west of Los Angeles, from a nearby blaze.

Disaster zone

Authorities now hope forecasts for cooler temperatures along with fog and even light rain will aid firefighters.

Click below to see a detailed map of the affected areas

Reinforcements are also expected to arrive from the neighbouring states of Arizona and Nevada to help the 13,000 firefighters already deployed.

California Governor Gray Davis said the cost of battling the fires - said to be the worst in the region for half a century - could exceed $2bn.

With insurance claims estimated to top $1bn, US President George W Bush has declared the affected areas a disaster zone, pledging the federal government will give all possible assistance.

California governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger has flown to Washington DC, to ask for further federal funds to help combat the blazes.

At least two of the fires are believed to have been the result of arson and another is said to have been lit as a distress signal by a lost hunter.

'Sky on fire'

Local residents have been telling BBC News Online how they escaped the flames.

One San Diego resident described roads as being packed with cars as people escaped the fires.

"Only a handful of cars were going south, as I was, into the city. There were walls of thick black and grey smoke rising hundreds of feet on either side of me and the sky glowed orange and red ahead," he said.

"It looked like I was driving straight into hell."

Nita Ramsey told BBC News Online ash had been falling for so long where she lived it looked like snow.

"The smoke is thick and it is hard to breathe," she said.

"All day we have to stay indoors for our health because the air quality is so bad. There is no school and no work... I want to leave but there is nowhere to go."

The BBC's Daniela Relph
"The dangers for fire crews are now immense"

Battling the inferno
30 Oct 03  |  Americas
In pictures: California blazes
30 Oct 03  |  Photo Gallery
California fires: Your reaction
27 Oct 03  |  Have Your Say
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28 Oct 03  |  Americas
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28 Oct 03  |  Entertainment

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