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Wildfires rage across Calif., killing 1

8 injured, including 4 firefighters

MALIBU, Calif. - More than a half-dozen wildfires driven by powerful Santa Ana winds spread across Southern California yesterday, killing one person near San Diego and destroying several homes and a church in Malibu.

No details were immediately available about the death in San Diego County.

Four firefighters and four other people were injured and taken to hospitals, said Roxanne Provaznik, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry.

The fire was among at least eight blazes extending from northern Los Angeles County south to San Diego, as hot weather and strong winds marked the height of the traditional wildfire season.

The fire responsible for the death and eight injuries started in Malibu Canyon and burned about 2,500 acres near a highway. A second charred about 3,000 acres in northern San Diego County and was threatening homes near Witch Creek, Provaznik said.

Meanwhile, in Malibu, 500 firefighters worked to protect about 200 homes in several upscale communities nestled in the hills, officials said. Malibu, which is 25 miles west of Hollywood, has many celebrity homes, and several of them were evacuated.

The blaze, which started in Malibu Canyon, had charred at least 1,000 acres and destroyed a church and several homes, one of them a landmark castle. The campus of Pepperdine University in Malibu was threatened but later declared safe.

Wind that gusted as high as 65 miles per hour carried embers across the Pacific Coast Highway, closing the popular road. The embers set fire to cars and trees at a shopping center and damaged several stores.

Flames consumed the landmark Castle Kashan, a stately fortress-like home with turrets and arched windows, as about a dozen residents watched from across a street. Chunks of brick fell from the exterior of the burning building overlooking the coast.

At least three homes and two commercial buildings also had been confirmed destroyed in the area, and nine other homes were damaged, officials said.

"We're at the mercy of the wind," said Acting Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich.

Faculty and staff members at the 830-acre Pepperdine University campus had prepared to flee until the campus was declared safe, school spokesman Jerry Derloshon said. Students were instructed to gather their belongings from their dorm rooms and report to the school's cafeteria and basketball arena.

Flames were no longer visible in the hills around the school, and power had been restored, Derloshon said.

Earlier, helicopters had dropped water on flames in the hills above the campus, and palm trees smoldered on the ocean-facing side of the campus.

The fire is expected to burn for another two to three days, Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said. Until it is extinguished, "there will literally be thousands of homes that will be threatened at one time or another," he said.

Fire crews had found downed power lines, which may have started the blaze in Malibu Canyon, fire Captain Mike Brown said.

Erratic wind gusts hampered efforts to drop water from aircraft and pushed flames toward HRL Laboratories, commonly known as Hughes Lab, a research and engineering facility jointly owned by Boeing Co. and General Motors Corp. about a mile north of Pepperdine.

One outbuilding on the HRL property caught fire, Boeing spokeswoman Diana Ball said.

Flames destroyed the Malibu Presbyterian Church, which had been evacuated, said youth pastor Eric Smith. "That's the really good news, that everyone's out and safe," Smith said.

About 200 homes were evacuated in the communities of Malibu Colony, Puerco Canyon, Monte Nido, and Sweetwater Canyon, Brown said.

To the south, a blaze was also burning near Potrero, about 40 miles southeast of San Diego, fire officials said. One structure had been destroyed and an unknown number of people evacuated, officials said.

Fifty to 100 homes were potentially in harm's way, said San Diego County Fire Captain Matt Streck.

Wildfires had been widely expected in Southern California during the weekend as hot weather and strong Santa Ana wind marked the height of traditional wildfire season after one of the driest rain years on record. This year's rainfall has been about one-fifth of the normal level.

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