California always evoked bikini-clad beach beauties, high-tech hothouses and carefree surfers in the endless sunshine of America's most populous state, dpa reported.
But those visions have gone up in smoke, replaced by new images seen around the world in the last week: massive flames roaring through the mansions of the rich and famous, and razing to the ground an entire neighbourhood of 500 mobile homes.
For while California remains at the cutting edge of US culture, lifestyles and the economy, it also lies at the epicenter of natural hazards and demographic changes that can make it a very tumultuous and sometimes dangerous place to live. That's even before the eternal threat of the powerful earthquakes that are long overdue to hit - and for which more than 5 million people practiced last week in a massive drill.
"Are we all crazy?" anguished columnist Steve Lopez asked in the Los Angeles Times. "Don't live here, says the wind, the trembling earth, the parched land, whose natural inclination is to explode in flame every year about now. But we do."
This central conflict of California life has become markedly sharper in recent years. The Santa Ana winds that fueled the latst fires are as old as the Mojave Desert from which they blow every autumn. But now, perhaps due to global warming, they blow even hotter and cause ever more destruction.
Then there are the demographic changes that are fueling a population explosion in California and prompting people to live directly in harm's way.
Professionals call this the wildland-urban interface. It means that more people are building homes in areas susceptible to wildfires, either because land is cheaper there, or because they long to live in nature's open spaces.
Decades of forest mismanagement have taken a heavy toll.
In the natural cycle, forests burn frequently. Mature trees survive the same quick fires that clear out undergrowth and brush, which otherwise builds up into a critical mass that can feed blazes big enough to ignite even the stoutest trees.
Since the 1940s, though, forest management has focused on suppressing every fire as quickly as possible. Forests and wild lands are now packed with thick layers of dry undergrowth, enough to fuel almost uncontrollable fires. Years of drought have killed many trees and only turned brush into tinder.
The effects, when they strike, are almost apocalyptic.
"It's devastating to us. It looks like a war zone," said Judith Napolitano, a resident of the Sylmar mobile home park, where house after house lay in charred ruins as if hit directly by a firebomb. "If I didn't see it, it would be hard to believe."
Another fire victim spoke of making an escape with just seconds to spare, "as embers rained down on my truck like golf balls."
Residents were finally allowed back to survey the damage Monday, making the gruesome tour of their neighbourhood in government vans.
Of 600 homes, only about 100 were left standing. Their owners were allowed to go inside and quickly pack up some valuable possessions - as long as they fit into the plastic shopping bags they had been given by officials.
The grim toll from the latest blazes does not begin to approach the devastation caused by fires that ravaged the region at around the same time last year. The fires have destroyed hundreds of homes since Thursday, including 500 mobile homes in Sylmar, east of Los Angeles. More than 100 homes in the luxurious celebrity enclave of Montecito, north-west of Los Angeles, also went up in flames.
According to figures released Monday by Cal Fire and the National Inter-agency Fire Centre, the Triangle Complex fire had burnt 11,600 hectares and 60 structures and was 40 per cent contained. The Sayre fire had burnt 4,400 hectares and 611 structures and was also 40 per cent contained. The Tea fire had burnt 800 hectares and 210 structures and was 95 per cent contained.
In total, more than 6,500 firefighters were trying to contain the blazes, and more than 30,000 people were ordered to evacuate. In two fires in October 2007, more than 2,000 homes were destroyed, damage was estimated above 2 billion dollars, and more than 500,000 people were ordered to evacuate from areas in and around San Diego.