Californians airlifted from fires as dangerous winds arrive


Tollhouse (United States) (AFP)

Dangerous dry winds whipped up California's record-breaking wildfires Tuesday as hundreds were evacuated from blazes by helicopter and tens of thousands more were plunged into darkness by power outages.

The arrival of strong gusts after the Labor Day weekend's unprecedented temperatures saw most of California placed under weather warnings, with 14,000 firefighters battling 25 major wildfires across the country's most populous state.

More than 170,000 customers were left without electricity as utility company PG&E enacted a "last resort" shutoff across large swathes of the state due to the extreme wildfire threat. Wider blackouts were scheduled later Tuesday.

Helicopters operating in hazardous smoky conditions overnight at the rapidly spreading Creek Fire near Fresno in central California have airlifted almost 300 people -- including 78 on Tuesday -- to safety, the California National Guard told AFP.

An unknown number remained awaiting rescue as homes were engulfed by flames in the Tollhouse area, while videos on social media showed the fire surrounding campsites around the popular holiday spot Mammoth Pool Reservoir.

The Fresno fire department tweeted late Monday that there "may be hikers and campers that were trapped in this area."

- 80 percent of town destroyed -

The Creek Fire has ripped through more than 140,000 acres and was zero percent contained Tuesday morning.

Another inferno -- the Bobcat Fire -- threatened the fringes of greater Los Angeles.

Evacuations were in progress from the closed Angeles National Forest, just north of the metropolis, with over 8,500 acres (3,400 hectares) on fire in the blaze that broke out Sunday.

The new fires spread rapidly over the holiday weekend, which saw a record 121 degree Fahrenheit (49 degree Celsius) temperature recorded in Los Angeles county.

Moderate Santa Ana winds arriving Tuesday were expected to strengthen through to Wednesday morning, with gusts of 55 miles (88 kilometres) per hour.

"Existing fires are displaying extreme fire behavior, new fire starts are likely, weather conditions are worsening, and we simply do not have enough resources to fully fight and contain every fire," said Randy Moore, regional forester for the Pacific Southwest Region.

They came as overstretched firefighters were finally gaining ground on many of the lightning-caused fires in Northern California which ignited last month.

California has now seen over 2.2 million acres burn in wildfires this year -- an annual record, with nearly four months of fire season still to come.

There have been 8 fatalities and more than 3,300 structures destroyed.

Nearby states including Oregon and Washington were also aflame Tuesday, with the National Weather Service warning that "a large portion of the western US will experience another day of critical to extreme fire weather conditions."

The small town of Malden in the northwestern state of Washington was nearly totally destroyed, with 80 percent of its buildings including the fire station, post office and city all "completely burned to the ground," the local sheriff said in a statement.

"The scale of this disaster really can't be expressed in words," said Sheriff Brett Myers. "The fire will be extinguished but a community has been changed for a lifetime. I just hope we don't find the fire took more than homes and buildings. I pray everyone got out in time."