California wildfires force thousands to flee

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A ferocious fire tore through Southern California on Tuesday, burning across an area roughly the size of Washington, D.C., in a matter of hours and forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.

Even as firefighters in Ventura County grappled with that explosive blaze northwest of downtown Los Angeles, others across the region confronted additional fires that drove more people to abandon their homes. Authorities issued ominous warnings of more dangers to come during a “multi-day event” across the area, as weather forecasters said the region faced “extreme fire danger” through at least Thursday due to intense Santa Ana winds and low humidity that could lead to rapid fire growth.

These fires were the latest grim chapter in a brutal year for California, coming just months after deadly blazes in the state’s wine country killed dozens of people and razed thousands of buildings.

The biggest fire Tuesday was in Ventura County, where a small blaze quickly metastasized into something officials declared “out of control” as it spread across more than 45,000 acres by mid-morning and stretched into the city of Ventura, home to more than 100,000 people.

“The prospects for containment are not good,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said at a news briefing as the fire was beginning its aggressive expansion. “Really, Mother Nature’s going to decide when we have the ability to put it out.”

As the flames continued to spread, the sun rose over Ventura and revealed the grim damage left behind by what was named the Thomas Fire.

Homes were destroyed, leaving behind only the barest signs showing where structures once stood. The charred remains of cars sat side by side along heaps of ash. The impact hit home for many of those responding to the blaze: One local fire official told a reporter that he had to call his daughter to tell her that her apartment had burned.

What caused the fire remained unknown Tuesday, Lorenzen said later. The fire’s ultimate impact also remained unclear. Lorenzen said 27,000 people were evacuated, and “almost none of them know the status of their homes.”

At least 150 structures were destroyed by the fire, Lorenzen said, a number he said could increase in the coming days because firefighters were not able to assess the damage in most areas where the blaze had spread. Lorenzen also warned that there was “a high possibility” that more areas would be evacuated.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Ventura County.

“This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly, but we’ll continue to attack it with all we’ve got,” Brown said in a statement. “It’s critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so.”

Fire officials offered blunt words about the blaze and its spread on Tuesday.

“The fire is still out of control and structures continue to be threatened throughout the fire area,” officials said in an update posted online. “Due to the intensity of the fire, crews are having trouble making access and there are multiple reports of structures on fire.”

Further east, firefighters also hurried to respond to a blaze that erupted north of downtown Los Angeles and also expanded quickly, growing to more than 4,000 acres within a matter of hours. Officials said that fire began outside the city limits before threatening parts of the Sylmar and Lake View Terrace areas.

“We are facing critical fire behavior, in ways that people may not have experienced in the past,” Daryl L. Osby, the Los Angeles County fire chief, told reporters during a news briefing. “To our citizens, it is extremely critical that when you’re asked to evacuate, evacuate early. We’ve had experience in other fires throughout this region that when we’ve had fatalities, it’s because people did not heed the early warning evacuations.”

Osby said that a number of structures had been lost to that blaze, dubbed the Creek Fire, but an exact count was not immediately available. Other officials stressed that the dangers would not end with the fires that grew on Tuesday.

“This is going to be a multi-day event,” Charlie Beck, the Los Angeles police chief, warned at the same briefing. “This will not be the only fire.”

Underscoring Beck’s point, Osby said that even as he was preparing to brief reporters, his fire department was called to respond to another fire that had begun to burn in Santa Clarita. Osby said the county department diverted two helicopters to respond to that blaze, which officials said grew to 500 acres by midday Tuesday and shut down the interstate there.

The Creek Fire prompted a wave of mandatory evacuations, forcing people to leave about 2,500 homes, and a convalescent hospital evacuated 105 patients, officials said.

It was unclear how many people may have been killed or injured in the fires. In Ventura County, a battalion chief was injured in a traffic accident on Monday night, and they are expected to recover, Lorenzen said.

As the fires forced waves of people to rush from their homes, the contours of daily life were shut down. Multiple schools were closed Tuesday, while some events were canceled amid the fires and power outages. In Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, more than 260,000 people were left without power at some point, Southern California Edison said in a tweet.

The coming days could lead to the dangerous spread of more fires. The National Weather Service reported that damaging winds and “very critical fire weather conditions” would remain Tuesday and return late Wednesday night into Thursday, saying these conditions could lead to “very rapid fire growth” and “extreme fire behavior.” The NWS issued a red flag warning for Ventura and Los Angeles, saying wind gusts between 50 and 70 mph are likely through Thursday.

Authorities had previously warned that a combination of strong winds and low humidity this week could increase the wildfire risk across Southern California. Cal Fire said it had moved resources from the northern part of the state to the south and prepared aircraft and fire equipment to respond.

Early Tuesday morning, officials said 500 firefighters were on the scene of the spreading Thomas Fire with more resources heading there, along with scores of law enforcement officers responding to help with evacuations and road closures.

Once the fire in Ventura County began on Monday, it moved “unbelievably fast,” said Ventura County Fire Sgt. Eric Buschow.

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