Walls of towering flames pushed by dry winds raged through Southern California hills early yesterday after destroying hundreds of homes and forcing thousands of residents to flee.

Evacuees could only watch the wildfires from a distance and wait to learn the fate of their homes and possessions.

"I'm hoping my house will not burn down, but if it burns down that's my life, right? I've got to start from scratch again," said Jack Chen of Yorba Linda as he sat on a cot in a school gym.

State of emergency
Fires burned in Los Angeles County, to the east in Riverside and Orange counties, and to the northwest in Santa Barbara County, blackening a total of 26 square miles (67 square kilometers) and burning more than 800 mobile homes, houses and apartments since Thursday night. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared states of emergency in all three counties.

The most threatening blaze early yesterday had scorched more than 9 square miles in Orange and Riverside counties after erupting Saturday and shooting through neighborhoods entwined with wilderness parklands.