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California wildfire destroys homes and forces evacuation of town

A man was arrested on suspicion of five counts of arson as firefighters battle to control the blaze.

A fast-moving wildfire believed to have been started deliberately has destroyed five homes and forced evacuation orders to be issued for a California town.

The so-called Cranston Fire, which erupted on Wednesday in the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles, burned hundreds of trees and in a matter of hours grew to more than seven square miles.

Authorities said it was threatening an estimated 600 homes.

The fire was the largest of at least five that police believe were started by a man whose car was spotted at the starting point of the blaze in Riverside County.

Brandon McGlover, 32, of Temecula, was arrested on suspicion of five counts of arson, state fire officials said.

Authorities ordered residents to leave Idyllwild and several neighbouring communities, home to about 12,000 people.

William Blodgett, of Idyllwild, said he could not get home because of the fire and had to wait along with others at a petrol station in nearby Mountain Center before the flames began to move in his direction.

“We were all peeling out of there as fast as we could,” he told KNBC-TV. “It was apocalyptic.”

Horses and other animals were taken to shelters as were several hundred children who were evacuated from summer camps. About 200 were at a local high school serving as a shelter, KCAL-TV reported.

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Smoke from the Cranston Fire clouds the skies over Highway 243, south of Idyllwild (Richard Lui/AP)

The fire in the San Bernardino National Forest sent up a cloud 50,000 feet high that was so enormous it created its own weather in the form of lightning, the National Weather Service reported.

Throughout the day, helicopters and planes dumped water and fire retardant that turned swathes of land and homes pink. Fire engines were also stationed to protect homes.

The fire is one of several across California amid a heatwave that has seen days of triple-digit temperatures.

To the north, in the San Francisco Bay Area, at least one home was destroyed in a fast-moving blaze in Clayton, where houses are spread out around windy roads.

Yosemite Valley, the scenic heart of the national park, was closed at noon on Wednesday during the height of the tourist season as smoke cast a pall on the region from a fire in the Sierra Nevada.

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A firefighter watches as the Cranston fire burns 1,200 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest (Terry Pierson/AP)

The closure was heartbreaking for travellers, many of whom mapped out their trips months in advance to hike and climb amid the spectacular views of cascading waterfalls and sheer rock faces.

“We had one guest who planned a week-long trip,” said Tom Lambert, who owns a vacation rental property near Yosemite Valley. “It was a father-daughter trip, for her high school graduation … Now it’s done. It’s sad.”

Officials emphasised that Yosemite was not in imminent danger from the fire. Authorities decided on the closure to allow crews to perform protective measures such as burning away brush along roadways without having to deal with traffic in the park that welcomes four million visitors annually.

Yosemite Valley will be closed until at least Sunday, along with a winding 20-mile stretch of California’s State Route 41 that leads into the area.

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