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 9:59 AM

Wind-whipped wildfires raged for a third day Wednesday in Southern California -- including a fresh blaze near UCLA -- threatening further damage after burning more than 65,000 acres, torching scores of buildings and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

The fires are burning extremely dry terrain along the northern and western edges of Los Angeles, and, more extensively, Ventura County, northwest of the country's second most-populous city.

Heavy Santa Ana winds that blamed for spreading the infernos still threaten to multiply the destruction. Among the smaller fires that popped up Wednesday morning was a 50-acre blaze burning near the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Getty Center arts complex, near Interstate 405.

The winds might die down during sunlight Wednesday, but they're expected to pick up in the evening and Thursday -- perhaps as gusty as 50 mph, posing a risk of further spread.

Smoke collected even in areas that weren't burning. Health officials warned people in the heavily populated San Fernando Valley and other parts of the northern Los Angeles area to limit their time outdoors.

Latest developments

The largest fire: The biggest blaze is the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, burning at least 50,000 acres, including parts of Ventura, a city of more than 100,000 people along the Pacific coast. It started Monday evening in a rural area and spread to the city. Officials said the fire has destroyed at least 150 buildings, including an evacuated mental health facility.

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

• Told to leave: More than a quarter of Ventura's residents (38,000 people) have been told to evacuate.

Creek Fire in northern Los Angeles: The second-largest inferno is the Creek Fire, having burned around 11,000 acres in and near northern Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

• Mass exodus: About 150,000 people in Los Angeles were affected by evacuation orders, Mayor Eric Garcetti said.

• Power outage: About 43,000 homes were without power Tuesday night, according to Southern California Edison. 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

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

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, 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," 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 that I have ... is gone'

Fires tore 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 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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