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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Homes of the rich and famous threatened by California wildfires

Governor blames climate change for a series of fierce blazes that have forced thousands to flee

Fast-moving wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of buildings in southern California were Monday threatening the wealthy hillside enclaves of the rich and famous.

Celebrities - including actor Rob Lowe and talk show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres - took to Twitter as flames neared their homes in picturesque coastal communities.

The fire is the fifth-worst in the US state since 1932 with high winds, rugged terrain and dry conditions all contributing to difficult conditions for firefighters trying to quench the flames. Ninety thousand homes and businesses have been left without power.

The fire, named Thomas, has destroyed blackened 230,000 acres and is the worst of six major fires in Southern California in the last week. The fires have forced some 200,000 people to leave their homes.

“Praying for my town. Fires closing in. Firefighters making brave stands. Could go either way. Packing to evacuate now,” Rob Lowe, who lives in a mansion in the wealthy enclave of Montecito near Santa Barbara, wrote on Twitter.

His home was threatened by the powerful flare-up on the western edge of Thomas that sent residents fleeing as the winds drove the flames through canyons to the coastal towns, northwest of Los Angeles.

Some 5,000 people have been ordered to leave their homes in Montecito and neighbouring Carpinteria with some 15,000 buildings threatened by the encroaching flames. Montecito is also home to Oprah Winfrey who wrote on Twitter: “Peace be Still, is my prayer tonight. For all the fires raging thru my community and beyond.”

Some people have already left the area under threat from Thomas after the intermittent closure of the main coastal road last week because of the flames. Officials handed out masks to residents who stayed behind in the town to protect themselves from the acrid smoke.

“Our house is under threat of being burned," talk show host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted on Sunday. "We just had to evacuate our pets. I'm praying for everyone in our community and thankful to all the incredible firefighters.”

Emmy Leikin, an Emmy-winning songwriter who was ordered to evacuate her Montecito home at 9 a.m. on Sunday, said she fled with only her cell phone, medication, glasses and a few apples.

Leikin, 74, said she doesn't know the condition of her home and belongings but "none of that means anything when it is your safety."

Despite the scale of destruction, only one death has been reported of a 70-year-old woman who died in a car accident on Wednesday as she attempted to flee the flames.

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Southern California's gusty Santa Ana winds have long contributed to some of the region's most disastrous wildfires.

They blow from the inland toward the Pacific Ocean, speeding up as they squeeze through mountain passes and canyons. Gusts of up to 40 mph (64 kph) are expected through Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

Fires are not typical in Southern California this time of year but can break out when dry vegetation and too little rain combine with the Santa Ana winds. Hardly any rain has fallen in the area over the last six months.

Firefighters have been diverted from other parts of the state to help tackle the new outbreak near Santa Barbara.

“A lot of these guys [firefighters] have fought a lot of fires in the past few months and are fatigued," said fire captain Steve Concialdi, a spokesman for the Thomas fire.

Fires last week in San Diego, some 130 miles to the south, swept through a training centre killed 40 elite thoroughbred racehorses and destroyed more than 100 homes, most of them in a retirement community.

"This is the new normal," Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown warned Saturday after surveying damage from another of the deadly wildfires. The governor and experts said climate change is making wildfires a year-round threat.

Wildfires in North California in October left more than 40 people dead as the speed of the spreading flames overcame people too slow to move.

Those fires led to criticisms about the adequacy of the early warning system to help people flee.

A mobile phone alert system failed to work properly with many phone masts knocked out by the flames. Officials also delayed sounding the alarm for fear of spreading panic and blocking off roads.