LOS ANGELES - Two massive wildfires raged in tinder-dry California hills and canyons Sunday, leaving thousands of homes evacuated and authorities to investigate a burned body found in a neighbourhood swept by flames.
Firefighters have been trying to beat back a fire since Friday that has blackened more than 34 square miles of brush on ridgelines near the city of Santa Clarita and the Angeles National Forest. About 300 miles up the coast, crews were battling another blaze across 16 square miles north of the majestic Big Sur region.
Sunday's forecast would not ease the battle, with hot weather, low humidity and afternoon and evening winds gusting to 20 mph that could once again fan the fires' explosive growth.
The Santa Clarita area, just north of Los Angeles, was among those ordered evacuated as a fire raged through brush withered by days of 100-degree temperatures in a Southern California heat wave.
The body of a man was discovered in a burned sedan outside a home in the city, and there was no evidence the death was a crime, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said Sunday.
Firefighters reported that some buildings had been engulfed after flames driven by gusty winds swept through an evacuated neighbourhood, but it was not immediately clear whether they were homes or smaller buildings, said Nathan Judy, a spokesman for the Angeles National Forest.
"You've still got hotspots in that area, a lot of smouldering stuff," and trees that might fall because their roots had burned, Judy said.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department has said about 1,500 homes and 100 commercial buildings were threatened.
More than 1,600 firefighters and water-dropping helicopters were battling the flames on several fronts.
"It's not a one-direction type of fire," Judy said. "It's going in different directions depending on which way the wind is blowing. It's doing what it wants."
Despite firefighters' efforts, the blaze destroyed sets at Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita, which has Old West-style buildings used for movie locations.
"It was a horrific firestorm," owner Derek Hunt told KABC-TV. "At some point, you know you're defeated and you have to step back and save what you can. We fought as best as we could."
The flames also forced a non-profit sanctuary for rescued exotic creatures to evacuate several hundred animals, including Bengal tigers and a mountain lion. Volunteers showed up with trucks and trailers to help with the rescue Saturday as the fire partially ringed Wildlife Waystation in Sylmar. Firefighters managed to beat back the threat later in the day.
Smoke and ash from the fire cast a pall over neighbouring Los Angeles. Air quality officials advised people with respiratory problems to stay indoors.
North on the Central Coast, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection firefighters battled a blaze in rugged mountains north of Big Sur. The fire 5 miles south of Garrapata State Park posed a threat to about 1,000 homes and the community of Palo Colorado was ordered evacuated, Cal Fire said.
Jerri Masten-Hansen said she and her husband watched the fire creep in toward them.
"We felt threatened this morning and decided we needed to go," Masten-Hansen told KSBW-TV.
Her sister also left her home down the road.
"I grabbed all the pictures of the kids, and then I took the paintings of my parents that had been done by a local artist," Ellen Masten said.