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USA: Fires rage for fourth day in Southern California

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By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Fires raged for the fourth day around Southern California on Sunday but firefighters hoped lighter winds would help them combat blazes that have destroyed more than 800 houses, from mobile homes to multimillion-dollar mansions, and forced some 50,000 people to flee the flames.

A fourth major blaze ripped through tinder-dry brush in San Bernardino County, south-east of Los Angeles, in the early morning hours of Sunday, forcing dozens of people from their homes, firefighters said.

Elsewhere wildfires had scorched 18,000 acres (7,200 hectares) in foothills north of Los Angeles, in hillsides in Orange County to the south, and in the celebrity enclave of Montecito near Santa Barbara where fire first broke out on Thursday and incinerated 210 homes.

Weary firefighters battled record high temperatures and hot Santa Ana winds under smoky orange skies. But weather forecasters said that wind gusts of up to 80 miles per hour (50 km per hour) that sent embers flying for miles over the last three days had died down early on Sunday, although firefighters expected it would take days to contain most of the blazes.

No serious injuries have been reported but police on Sunday sent cadaver dogs through a mobile home park in Sylmar, north of Los Angeles, where 500 dwellings went up in flames overnight on Friday.

Police and authorities said they feared many of the mostly elderly residents may not have escaped in time.

"You could see absolutely nothing," said Jackie Burns, 77, who fled her mobile home in Sylmar with her husband Len at 3 a.m. on Saturday.

"It was like looking into a black hole. It looked like the end of the world to me."

Thick ash fell on cars, and acrid smoke filled the air as far as 25 miles (40 km) away from the fires. Health authorities urged the elderly and children to stay indoors and said no one should be exercising outdoors.

California's fire season, which traditionally ran from June to October, has been a year-round menace for several years because of perennial drought.

The state's burgeoning population has led to homes being built in rugged canyons and on hillsides surrounded by brush and forests.

In October 2007, 30 blazes raged across Southern California, forcing evacuation of more than 500,000 people and damaging some 2,000 homes.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Eric Walsh)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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