California's Malibu wildfires partly contained

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MALIBU, California, Nov 25 (Reuters) A wildfire fueled by gusty winds destroyed dozens of homes from the mountains to the beaches of Southern California's ritzy Malibu and is only partially under control, fire officials said.

The second fire in a little over a month to hit this seaside enclave hugging the Pacific Ocean, popular with many of Hollywood's biggest stars, has blackened 1,821 hectares) and forced more than 10,000 people to evacuate, Los Angeles County fire officials said.

''We are making some progress,'' said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Ron Haralson. ''The fire is 25 per cent contained. The winds are not as strong as they were this morning, which is a help,'' he said.

Thirty-five multimillion dollar, ranch-style homes in the canyons of central Malibu were destroyed and as many as 200 homes were at risk, but the threat to at least some of the buildings has receded, Haralson said.

Against a brilliant blue sky, a pall of smoke billowed off the mountains and poured out over the ocean. Scores of spot fires dotted the hillsides.

State officials this week pre-positioned hundreds of fire fighters, aircraft and supporting fire gear across Southern California after forecasters predicted optimal fire conditions this weekend, fueled by Santa Ana winds that by early Saturday gusted up to 60 mph (96 kph).

The blaze spread rapidly, but a quick response by fire fighters saved many homes, one fire inspector said. ''If we had not had the pre-deployed firefighters, we could have lost a lot more homes than we did,'' said LA County Fire's Sam Padilla.

Residents began fleeing from their homes shortly after the fire broke out in the small hours of the morning, awakened by fire trucks sirens and police cars with public address systems, several residents said.

''It is Armageddon up there,'' said film producer Michele Ghersi, who lives in Corral Canyon, below where the fire started. He evacuated in the middle of the night but later took his motorbike up into the charred hills to survey the damage.

Ghersi's home was spared but those of several of his nearby neighbors had burned to the ground, he said.

TINDERBOX CONDITIONS By midday, winds had died down but fire officials cautioned that a red-flag alert over the tinderbox conditions will remain until noon today.

''I wouldn't count on coming back today, and I wouldn't count on coming back tomorrow, but I think by the first of the week it should be under control,'' Malibu Mayor Jeff Jennings told a news conference.

Dry, brush-covered mountains descend to the ocean in Malibu, creating a spectacular but precarious place to live.

Mansions line the beaches and canyons that snake up into the famously fire-prone hills. A stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway was closed as fire burned on both sides of the main road through Malibu, fire inspectors said.

Yellow firefighting ''Super Scooper'' planes refilled by dropping down to the placid Pacific and skimming the ocean to load up water tanks to douse the blaze. The planes then disappeared into dense clouds of smoke to drop their payloads.

Local radio said there were unconfirmed reports the fire started at a late-night outdoor party on a dirt mountain road known as a remote hangout for teenagers. But Los Angeles County Fire Chief Freeman told a news conference arson investigators had not determined the fire's cause.

Burning homes perched on hillsides as fire trucks wound along curving roads, and planes dropped water and orange fire retardant in the fire's path. Students at Pepperdine University took shelter at a campus student center.

More than 1,700 firefighters, 15 helicopters and 12 fixed-wing aircraft were mobilized. Six fire fighters suffered minor injuries and some of them were taken to hospitals for observation, Haralson said.

Fire officials had been bracing after a rash of devastating brush fires last month swept the dry hills of Southern California from Santa Barbara south to San Diego.

Across Southern California in October, at least a dozen people died, more than 1,500 homes were destroyed and 250,000 residents fled during the blazes, the largest evacuation in California's recent history.

REUTERS SZ VC0859

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