North America

First death reported as 200,000 flee California wildfires


Emergency officials are warning Californians to prepare to evacuate, as the state's south is hit by intense wildfires.

Firefighters on Thursday battled raging wildfires across southern California that have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, including residents on the outskirts of Los Angeles, America's second-largest city.

Winds with hurricane-force gusts of up to 130 kilometres per hour were fuelling the blazes, creating apocalyptic scenes of hillsides engulfed in billowing smoke and towering plumes of flame.

Despite the intensity of the fires, only one fatality has been reported so far. Tim Lohman of the Ventura County Sheriff's Office said an unidentified body had been found overnight.

A prior report of a fire-related death on Monday proved to be unfounded.

More than 4,000 firefighters and dozens of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters have been deployed to combat the fires in Los Angeles County and Ventura County, fire officials said.

The Pentagon announced that the California National Guard is deploying 65 troops to assist in the fire-fighting efforts, which are being hampered by the seasonal Santa Ana winds.

California Fire Department (Cal Fire) officials said dry, windy conditions were expected to continue into the weekend and warned residents to be ready to leave at a moment's notice.

"Extremely dry conditions and Santa Ana Winds will continue to elevate fire danger," Cal Fire said in a tweet.

"Prepare now to ensure if evacuated you and your family are ready to GO!"

Cal Fire chief Ken Pimlott said the strong winds were compounding the difficulty of fighting the fires.

"There will be no ability to fight fire in these kinds of winds," Pimlott said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country's second largest with more than 640,000 students, said it closed at least 265 of its nearly 1100 schools on Thursday.

Multi-million dollar mansions were destroyed in Los Angeles' Bel Air neighbourhood, where many celebrities own homes and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch has a $30 million estate, the Moraga Bel Air Winery.

Besides Bel Air, affluent Los Angeles neighbourhoods between Mulholland Drive to the north and Sunset Boulevard to the south were part of the evacuation zone.

The University of California, Los Angeles cancelled classes - two days before the start of final exams - as firefighters battled the "Skirball" fire near the sprawling campus.

Further to the north, in Ventura County, an even bigger blaze, the "Thomas" fire, was raging and threatening several coastal and inland towns.

That fire has consumed 96,000 acres (38,850 hectares) and forced 50,000 people to flee their homes, Cal Fire said.

In the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the Creek Fire destroyed at least 30 homes, blackened more than 4800 hectares and forced the evacuation of 2500 homes and a convalescent centre.

Another blaze, the Rye Fire, threatened more than 5000 homes and structures northwest of Los Angeles.

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