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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 October 2007, 07:00 GMT 08:00 UK
Paradise lost in fiery California
By Joanne Griffith
BBC News, California

Stevenson Ranch in Valencia, California, on Monday
The famous California sun is now obscured behind smoke and ash
Sunsets in America's Golden State are among the most beautiful in the world, but for some in southern California, it will be a while before they can see the sun's glow without a filter of smoke and ash.

Dry areas, high temperatures and strong winds have created perfect conditions for fire storms.

Six thousand crews are fighting more than a dozen blazes from the ocean to California's desert border with Mexico.

Across seven counties, 470 square miles (1,214 sq km) have been scorched - an area the size of New York City.

One person has been killed and another is in hospital being treated for severe burns. Many civilians and firefighters have been injured.

Beachside rescue

Fires began to burn in the upmarket celebrity haunt of Malibu on Sunday.

Nestled between the ocean and the mountains, the picturesque Pacific Coast Highway is eerily quiet.

It's crazy, we were surrounded by fire on both sides
Evacuee at Qualcomm stadium, San Diego
Looking out across the water, the usually clear blue skies are hazy with smoke blowing across from the canyons, with just a sprinkling of surfers spinning on their boards.

Malibu residents wait patiently in cars or wander slowly along the road waiting for fire crews and emergency services to give them the all-clear to return home. Many sip on free drinks and snacks from local restaurants where the usual bustling lunch-time trade is absent.

Amin Amler cuts a solitary figure as he walks his dog along the shoreline. He has lived in Malibu for 16 years and has witnessed many wildfires in California. He was evacuated from his home on Sunday and is currently staying with friends.

"There was a police truck in the street saying mandatory evacuation. I'm lucky, I think my house is okay," he says.

"I have seen the crews put out fires here and it was amazing. I think they know what they are doing. They're doing an amazing job."

Echo of Katrina

Away from the relative peace of Malibu, residents in San Diego have a very different story to tell.

More than 300,000 homes have been evacuated in the county of San Diego alone, with 1,000 properties and 300 businesses destroyed. Many emergency evacuation centres are now full in San Diego, forcing some residents to travel to Orange County.

In scenes reminiscent of the Louisiana Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, 10,000 people have sought refugee inside the Qualcomm Stadium, home to the San Diego Chargers. Thousands more have set up camp in the car park.

Emergency shelters set up in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium on Tuesday
San Diego's stadium now offers shelter
But unlike the Superdome experience of Katrina's victims, necessary food and aid arrived promptly with assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema).

President Bush has promised any assistance necessary and will visit California on Thursday.

Every effort is being made to keep up the spirits of the evacuees. Music wafts through the air in place of smoke, and a number of magicians entertain giggling children with stories and magic tricks.

In the meantime, parents keep up-to-date on the latest news beamed from the stadium's big screen - more commonly used to show touchdowns than fire reports.

Raining ash

Displaced residents also make full use of the free telephone service to ease the concerns of worried family and friends, and to connect with the outside world.

One San Diego resident arriving at the Qualcomm says of the scene near his home: "It's crazy, we were surrounded by fire on both sides."

Others recount scenes of raining ash and soot, blackening the skies and playing havoc with the health of those with heart and lung ailments.

As the blaze continues into another day, fire crews are hoping for respite. Some fires are beginning to be contained as helicopters and aircraft drop water and chemical fire retardants on out-of-control, tinder-dry brush.

Weather reports say the gusty Santa Ana winds fuelling the flames will subside by Wednesday afternoon and cooler temperatures are on the way.



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The trail of destruction caused by the wildfires





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