Wind-stoked wildfires rage in southern California

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LOS ANGELES, Oct 22 (Reuters) A dozen wildfires stoked by gusting winds burned out of control in southern California, killing one person in San Diego and forcing thousands to evacuate homes from the celebrity enclave of Malibu down to the Mexican border.

Weather forecasts indicated that firefighters and residents faced two more days of high winds, hot temperatures and low humidity in the drought-stricken region.

The Malibu fire burned 2,200 acres (900 hectares) from dawn to dusk yesterday and destroyed at least 10 buildings, including a landmark castle-like house and a Presbyterian church, officials said. No injuries were reported.

To the south in rural San Diego County, officials said one person died and 17 others were injured, including four firefighters, in a fire that scorched 14,000 acres (5,700 hectares) and shrouded the skies over San Diego harbor to the west.

Another fire in San Diego forced the evacuation of all 36,000 residents of the town of Ramona.

Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for seven counties stretching from Santa Barbara in the north to the Mexican border.

Malibu saw some respite in the afternoon, but authorities warned the fierce Santa Ana winds that roar through California's canyons remained erratic and could double in speed overnight.

''Have a plan and be prepared,'' Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich told a news conference. ''The winds, although they are dying down, could kick up again this evening.'' Malibu, a town of about 13,000 residents, is about 25 miles (40 km) west of Hollywood and home to legions of entertainers who flock there for the privacy of the beachfront homes or expansive canyon ranches complete with riding stables.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief P Michael Freeman said the fire was expected ''to last a couple of days and literally thousands of homes are going to be threatened.'' Residents said the predawn fire took them by surprise and gave them little time to pack belongings and get out.

''We were in the house and the fire was burning all around us,'' said Malibu philanthropist Lilly Lawrence, whose Castle Kashan was engulfed by the flames after she and a house guest escaped.

''The loss is way up in the double-digit millions,'' Lawrence said in an interview, noting the home contained family heirlooms, paintings and Elvis Presley memorabilia bought from his Graceland estate.

1,000 FIREFIGHTERS AT MALIBU Freeman said 700 firefighters were battling the Malibu fire and 300 more were expected to arrive overnight.

There was no confirmed cause for the fire, which authorities have named the Canyon Fire, but Freeman said there was speculation that downed power lines might have sparked it as wind gusted around 60 mph (100 kph).

The Santa Monica mountains above Malibu are tinder dry as Southern California comes out of one of its driest years on record with rainfall around one-fifth of average.

Some 200 homes were under mandatory evacuation in Malibu, while horse owners in some areas were ordered to evacuate their animals. The main coastal highway through the area was shut from both the north and the south.

Thousands of students at Pepperdine University, near the commercial center of Malibu, returned to their dorms in the evening after spending the day in safe areas on a campus that was built with the high wildfire risk in mind.

Wildfires are so common in Malibu that actress and resident Shirley MacLaine once joked the postal zip code should be changed to ''911'' -- the phone number for emergencies.

Authorities told people to avoid Malibu beaches. But surfers were seen in the water taking advantage of the waves powered by high winds.

REUTERS SS RN1120

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