More than a thousand firefighters were struggling to contain a wind-whipped brush fire in southern California on Tuesday that has left at least one person dead, sent thousands fleeing, and was choking the area with thick black smoke.
The Ventura County Fire Department said more than 27,000 people had been told to evacuate as the fast-moving fire in the coastal county north of Los Angeles grew to 45,000 acres (18,200 hectares). More than 150 homes and businesses had already been destroyed.
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over the area, announcing: “This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly.
“It’s critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so.”
The northern part of Los Angeles county was engulfed in thick smoke, leaving the air almost unbreathable as ash fell on the streets. Mayor Eric Garcetti warned residents to remain vigilant for fresh outbreaks.
“This is an extreme weather event and these winds can spread embers far and/or kick small new fires up quickly. We expect five days of this,” he tweeted.
A Red Cross evacuation center which had hosted 600 people Monday night was expecting that number to rise to around a thousand by Tuesday, spokesman Fred Mariscal said.
Lexus Deloni, a 20-year-old caregiver who had brought her two young girls, aged one and two, said she had only 45 minutes to evacuate after returning home from a 12-hour shift in the city of Ojai, an hour-and-a-half drive from LA.
“I’m making sure they are eating, drinking, having fun, playing with them,” she said, as a man dressed as Santa Claus arrived, much to the delight of the youngsters.
Prospects for containment depended on improving weather conditions.
“Really, Mother Nature is going to decide when we have the ability to put it out,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen told a news conference.
Strong seasonal gusts known as the Santa Ana winds had registered speeds of up to 55 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour), the National Weather Service said, predicting they could hit upwards of 80 miles per hour.
“The fire is pushing quickly towards the city of Ventura,” Lorenzen said, and has reached the eastern city limits. The oceanside city has a population of around 100,000.
The fire chief said one death had been reported. “As the individual was evacuating from the fire, the car overturned,” he said.
Authorities said more than 1,000 firefighters were currently fighting the “Thomas Fire” — a blaze captured in apocalyptic images with flames sometimes taking on the appearance of a volcanic eruption.
“Fixed wing aircraft and helicopters are expected to attack the fire at daybreak,” the Ventura County website said.
Two other large blazes broke out Tuesday — the Creek Fire, which has so far swallowed 11,000 acres (around 4,500 hectares) and the more contained Rye fire, spread over 1,000 acres.
The NWS put a “red flag” warning into effect for much of Los Angeles and Ventura counties through Thursday, saying the coming days would likely see “the strongest and longest duration Santa Ana wind event we have seen so far this season.”
Lorenzen said the fire was consuming dry brush.
“It’s heavy brush, brush that hasn’t burned in 15 to 20 years,” he said.
“And it’s been a five, six-year drought so the fuel is just tinder dry and just as ripe as can be for fire spread.”
Roads in the northern part of Los Angeles meanwhile were packed with traffic as firetrucks raced towards the flames, while several sections of highways were closed.
Widespread power outages had hit a quarter of a million people as well as forcing the closure of 20 schools.
The Getty Center, one of Los Angeles’ most prestigious museums, said it would remain closed until Wednesday to protect its collection from smoke damage.
The inferno began Monday night near Highway 150 before spreading to the city of Santa Paula.
Captain Scott Quirate, a local fire chief, told local TV stations that he had to call his daughter at dawn to tell her that her apartment had gone up in flames.
Authorities warned of widespread smoke and limited visibility, urging residents in impacted areas to run their air conditioners and keep outside windows and doors closed to prevent smoke from entering.
This has been California’s deadliest year ever for wildfires. More than 40 people died in the state’s wine-producing country in fires in October. AFP