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At Least 2,000 Flee as California Fires Spread

University, Thousands of Homes in Danger

Firefighters douse flames on a beach home in Malibu, Calif., where high winds blew embers from house to house.
Firefighters douse flames on a beach home in Malibu, Calif., where high winds blew embers from house to house. (By Mark J. Terrill -- Associated Press)
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By Noaki Schwartz
Associated Press
Monday, October 22, 2007

MALIBU, Calif., Oct. 21 -- Nearly a dozen wildfires driven by powerful Santa Ana winds spread across Southern California on Sunday, killing one person near the Mexican border and destroyingseveral homes and a church in celebrity-laden Malibu.

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Four firefighters and at least 10 other people were injured and taken to hospitals in connection with the San Diego fire, said Matt Streck, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry. Details on the death were not immediately available.

The blaze burned nearly 5 square miles near a highway just north of the border town of Tecate. In northeastern Los Angeles County, near Agua Dulce, a fire burned about 10,000 acres, or nearly 16 square miles, in just a few hours as about 250 firefighters tried to get a handle on it.

Ten buildings were destroyed, said county Fire Inspector Ron Haralson, but it wasn't clear how many were homes. Between 500 and 800 people fled the area, and three people were injured, officials said.

Meanwhile, in Malibu, about 700 firefighters worked to protect Pepperdine University and about 200 homes in upscale neighborhoods in the Malibu Hills, said Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Sam Padilla. About 1,500 people fled the fires, officials said.

The blaze charred at least 1,200 acres, or nearly two square miles, and jumped the Pacific Coast Highway, closing the busy road and setting fire to cars and trees in the parking lot of a shopping center. TV footage also showed several buildings in flames in the area, including clusters of beach-side homes.

"This fire is zero percent contained, which means we're at the mercy of the wind," acting Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich said.

Five homes and two commercial buildings had been confirmed lost throughout the Malibu area, Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said. Nine more homes were damaged, he said.

The fire is expected to burn for another two to three days, he said. Until the blaze is extinguished, "there will literally be thousands of homes that will be threatened at one time or another," he said.

Fire crews early Sunday found downed power lines, which may have started the Malibu fire, Capt. Mike Brown said.

Flames consumed the landmark Castle Kashan, a stately fortresslike home with turrets and arched windows. Malibu Presbyterian Church was also engulfed after it was evacuated, said youth pastor Eric Smith. "That's the really good news, that everyone's out and safe," Smith said.

Erratic wind gusts hampered efforts to drop water from aircraft and pushed flames toward HRL Laboratories, a research and engineering facility owned by Boeing and General Motors. One outbuilding caught fire, Boeing spokeswoman Diana Ball said.

Wildfires had been widely expected in Southern California during the weekend, with hot weather and strong Santa Ana winds coming after one of the driest rain years on record.

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