Thousands flee as winds whip California fires

Thousands have fled their homes as several fast-moving brush fires pushed by howling Santa Ana winds scorched parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties in Southern California. CNN's Sara Sidner reports.

Posted: Dec 6, 2017 9:29 AM

Burning with extreme speed and ferocity, a flurry of wildfires torched more than 65,000 acres in Southern California, as firefighters struggled to contain the simultaneous infernos.

Powerful Santa Ana winds and extremely dry conditions fueled at least five wildfires Tuesday, marking what has been a devastating year for fires in California.

The latest fires forced tens of thousands to flee their homes, burned down more than a hundred buildings and triggered power outages in the region.

Latest developments

• Curfew enacted: On Tuesday, the city of Ventura declared a daily curfew, beginning 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. The curfew is to protect residents and prevent crime such as looting in the evacuation areas, the city said.

• Fire jumps freeway: The largest fire, called the Thomas Fire, was seen reaching the 101 freeway, north of Ventura, and even jumping across to the other side of the freeway.

• Blazing fast: The Thomas Fire had been burning at nearly an acre per second Tuesday. At that speed, it would have covered Manhattan's Central Park in about 15 minutes.

• Mass exodus: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said about 150,000 people in Los Angeles were affected by evacuation orders for another fire, called the Creek Fire, near Sylmar and Lake View Terrace.

• Power outage: About 43,000 homes are without power, according to Southern California Edison Tuesday night. More outages are possible because flames were burning along power transmission paths, a spokeswoman said.

Other fires: The Rye Fire near Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County grew to about 5,000 acres and was 5% contained. That fire was spotted near the Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia.

In San Bernardino County, two smaller fires sprang up. One is fully contained while the Little Mountain fire, at 100 acres, is 0% contained.

Fire could go for days

After a slowdown Tuesday night, the Santa Ana winds are expected to pick back up Wednesday into Thursday, which could complicate firefighting efforts.

The largest of the blazes, called the Thomas Fire, spanned 50,000 acres (about 78 square miles) in Ventura County, which sits just north of Los Angeles. The fire was at 0% containment as of Tuesday night.

In Ventura, a city of more than 100,000 on the Pacific coast, more than a quarter of its residents (38,000 people), had been told to evacuate. The number of destroyed structures was unknown due to the intensity of the fire, but officials had estimated about 150 buildings early Tuesday.

In Los Angeles, another fire called the Creek Fire went from 4,000 acres to 11,000 in a matter of hours Tuesday.

"We expect to be out here all week fighting and containing this fire," LA Mayor Eric Garcetti said.

The fires spewed so much smoke that they were captured in a NASA image from space.

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared an emergency for Ventura County, freeing state resources such as the National Guard to support response efforts.

'Everything I have... is gone'

The fire had torn through neighborhoods, razing homes to the ground, reducing them to gray smoldering ashes. It also burned Vista del Mar Hospital, an 82-bed mental health facility in northwestern Ventura, which was fully evacuated two hours before, county fire engineer Richard Macklin said.

Residents who had to evacuate from their homes described tense moments as the fires rapidly approached.

"The embers from the trees were dropping on our cars," said Mary Robinson, a Ventura resident, who fled Monday night. "We're so blessed that we still have a house. I can't believe it, because the fire was so close."

Another Ventura resident, Samantha Wells-Zuniga, escaped with her family and watched her entire apartment complex called the Hawaiian Village, burn down.

Speaking through tears, she told CNN affiliate KABC, "We've been watching all these disasters on TV, you really don't think about when it happens to you, and what do you pack in that moment?"

They escaped with a few Christmas presents.

"Now, everything that I have, except for my lovely family, is gone," she said.

The Thomas fire jumped to thousands of acres with startling speed as Santa Ana winds, blowing as fast as 35 to 50 mph, carried its embers. The fire quickly devoured dry chaparral, as the county has been in a period of moderate drought.

Satellite images show how fast it lit up neighborhoods at night.

The winds were part of the season's "strongest and longest" Santa Ana event. The Santa Anas are strong, dry winds that high-pressure systems push from east to west, from the mountains and desert areas down into the Los Angeles area.

A red-flag warning, which is for extreme weather conditions that could cause wildfires, is in effect until 8 p.m. PT Friday.

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