Palaces For The People
Tuesday, October 28, 2003
18 people killed, 2000 homes destroyed in California fires

Los Angeles, October 29

More than 11,000 firefighters were on Tuesday battling California's worst ever wildfires that have killed at least 18 people, destroyed 2,000 homes, and forced tens of thousands into shelters.

The sky over the second largest US city, Los Angeles, was painted an eerie hue of orange as a thick pall of smoke from fires burning over at least 217,200 hectares (543,000 acres) blocked out the sun.

Giant plumes of smoke stretched miles up into the sky and were visible from space, as up to 50,000 more residents of mountainous areas east of here fled their homes as flames exploded through fire cordons.

"This may well be the worst disaster the state has faced," outgoing California Governor Gray Davis said of the 14 fires, many of which are now thought to have been sparked by arsonists.

"I expect the cost in the next few days to near two billion dollars," he said, adding that the figure included loss of infrastructure, relief and firefighting efforts.

Davis also declared a state of emergency in a fifth county in southern California, Riverside, where a new blaze is raging, two days after doing so in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

The governor's Office of Emergency Services said the fires burning in the south of the most populous US state and had killed at least 16 people in California and consumed well over half a million acres.

A further two people died in Mexico after the flames jumped the border at San Diego. Officials in California said more dead were certain to be found in the disaster zones when the flames clear.

Nine major infernos were blazing around the southern city of San Diego, in Los Angeles' suburban San Fernando Valley and in the popular mountain resort area of Big Bear in San Bernardino County, 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Los Angeles.

"It's a rolling disaster that's just growing in size, its overwhelming," said Patty Roberts of the OES, which is coordinating fire data.

More 11,000 firefighters and 81 planes and helicopters from at least six states were launching major and ground and air attacks on the blazes, which were largely burning out of control over tinder-dry brush and forestland.

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