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‘It was like a war zone’: Fires region across Southern California as wildfires blast from Ventura to San Diego

'It was like a war zone': Fires region across Southern California as wildfires blast from Ventura to San Diego

Fire pursued to tear across Southern California on Thursday, surrounding societies and obscure much of the region in fiery flame and thick, choking smoke.

And where there was no fire, there was fear.

Fear of what could appear next as wildfires damaged the state for a fourth day. Fear of what could happen if the airs shifted, if the flames moved, if new flames appeared and were strengthened by the powerful blasts already fueling the infernos burning across the area.

Tens of thousands of people departed their homes, running from fires without any idea of when they could return or what they might find when they do. They captured pets, clothes and mementos before hurrying off in search of shelter.

Veteran firefighters described some of the flames around the region — at least a half-dozen — as unlike everything they had ever encountered. Thousands of firefighters and other first responders fanned out to save lives secure homes and shepherd people to safety, joined by reinforcements that gathered in from other components of the nation.

Authorities had not reported any deaths due to the flames by Thursday, but they spoke bluntly about the crisis that remained through week’s end. While the most severe airs are forecast to slacken Friday and Saturday, lessening the fire danger some, the National Weather Service urged that the risk of fires will remain inflated through Sunday as conditions remain individually dry and airy.

The fires in Southern California appear on the heels of already historically damaging fire season in the state. The conflagration that increase across Sonoma and Napa counties in October killed 42 people — the highest death toll always for a fire in the state — burned more than 200,000 acres, and broken at least 8,400 buildings and homes. And authorities said the conditions this week in Southern California, which skilful a record heat wave in late October made the terrain notably exposed to explosive wildfires.

Ron Lane, an official in San Diego County, where a new flame broke out north of the city on Thursday and started to spread rapidly, said that the county never experienced December airs like these before. Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles told The Los Angeles Times that the air is the driest it has been in recorded history. And fire officials in Los Angeles said earlier this week that the “brush burning” index they use to calculate fire danger from environmental conditions was the highest they had always seen.

Officials continued to warn about the peril of new fires to increase and spread quickly. The San Diego County flame dubbed the Lilac Fire, began around 11 am Thursday and expanded to about 2,500 acres in just a few hours. Two people were taken to a local burn center with injuries, officials said at an afternoon news conference and at least 20 buildings had burned. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) stated a statement of emergency in the nation as officials worked to organize expulsion plans.

“We are nowhere near the end of this,” said Lane, who warned of more evacuations to appear. “There are thousands of homes that are within the path of these fires.”

The state’s biggest active flame, the Thomas Fire, go on to spread, increasing to 115,000 acres — about 180 square miles — and damaging more than 400 buildings in Ventura County on Thursday.

Flames from that fire ringed Ojai, the famous winter retreat that is home to about 8,000 people, on Thursday, officials said. Most of the Ojai Valley had been placed under a forced evacuation order.

More than 100 fire trucks from several cases had parked at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, firefighters standing or sitting aside their apparatus as they took breaks from battling fires in nearby Ojai the night before, airs whipping in off the ocean as they rested.

“Yesterday, you had to chew the wind before you breathed it,” said Shane Nollsch, who had traveled from Lyon County, Nev. on Wednesday to fight the fires.

Residents who had departed the area described the nightmarish conditions. Patricia Hampton, 48, said she and her boyfriend woke up at her house in Ventura on Tuesday night to the sound of helicopters. Outside the ground was covered in ash, the wind so smoky it was hard to breathe. The two packed backpacks and left on bicycles only to find their neighborhood turned into a disaster zone. A power outage had left the region in darkness, except for the flames pulsing the hills on both sides of her. And it was “wickedly windy,” Hampton said.

“We didn’t know what had happened. We rode down into town attempting to make sense of what we were looking — police anywhere, fire trucks, helicopters,” she said in an interview at a limited shelter that had been set up by the Red Cross at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. “It was like a war zone. You could hear transformers blasting up. Yeah, it was gnarly.”

La Conchita, a tiny town hard against coastal Highway 101 northwest of Ventura, was threatened by flames early Thursday. The town most generally faces danger from mudslides, but those same cliffs that give way with rain are now a rich “fuel bed” for the wildfires. Fire crews managed to carry the flame from the town’s edge, but new lines, fanned by off-shore winds, remained a pitfall.

That flame — the Thomas Fire — extended dozens of miles from near Santa Paula in Ventura County to the edge of Carpinteria, a city of 13,000 people, a stiffening air posing the most threat. Gusts picked up flames low on marshy mountain slopes and drove them up and over hills toward several towns along the Pacific Ocean. Santa Barbara County started urging evacuations, ordering hundreds of people to leave areas along the Pacific Ocean between the bigger cities of Santa Barbara and Ventura.

Along Rincon Mountain Road a few miles south of Carpentaria, fire bands fought several lines of flames overnight Wednesday and throughout Thursday, targeted on securing homes and ranches. A dozen Ventura County fire engines staged along the road near midday, the fire burning in the avocado and citrus orchards along the ridge-line above.

Tall stands of eucalyptus shook with the strengthening air, which was driving the flames toward several multimillion-dollar homes, a brewery and a little vineyard. Helicopters buzzed overhead, tailing “bambi buckets” beneath. The buckets open from the bottom, scooping up loads of water from the Pacific and Lake Casitas to drop near threatened homes and buildings.

Fred Burris, a Ventura County Fire Department battalion chief, was completing a 24-hour shift that included assisting to secure La Conchita. New fire lines were popping up along a 15-mile stretch of Highway 150 between Ojai and Carpinteria.

“Everyone says, ‘Yeah, this is the worst,’ but it really is the high-water mark for me. We’ve never seen a fire with this much speed and range,” said Burris, a 36-year veteran of the department.

The California National Guard said it had mobilized more than 1,300 personnel to assist confronts the wildfires.

In Los Angeles County, the Rye and Creek fires go on burning through a combined 30 square miles north of Los Angeles, while the Skirball Fire caused the University of California Los Angeles to cancel classes on Thursday, just before final exams.

At an afternoon news conference, Los Angeles officials sounded a more optimistic note than recent days, saying that the majority of residents who had been departed from homes near the three fires would be soon permitted home. Still, Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) cautioned that it was “still an insecure time,” and warned that high airs could pick up again at any time. Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said that the forecast of the city’s weather and humidity conditions for Friday still put it in the “extreme range” of fire risk.

The Skirball Fire’s brunt could be seen on Interstate 405, the famously crowded roadway shut down by the flames rolling down the mountains to its east. The freeway had acted as a divide: the hills on its west side had been afforded.

At a shelter at a recreation center for people who had fled the Creek Fire in Sylmar, Frank Grossman, 70, was sifting through boxes of used clothes that had been donated. He had a quarter-sized burn on his cheek where his skin was peeling off. He described himself as homeless, and said the fire had sent him fleeing from the tent he lived in on a property Tujunga. In the rush to get out, he had left his wallet behind.

“Right now I’d like a ride home to get down there and see if everything’s left,” he said. “I can’t get money out of the bank without my ID. You know it’s tough, I’m 70 years old.”

About 10 miles south of Carpinteria, Richard Floyd watched flames burn down an abrupt hillside toward his aunt’s 32-acre avocado orchard, blazing with the air gusts. For hours, the fire was close enough to his cabin, set in a bowl between hills, that you could hear it crackle and pop.

Helicopters dropped water on the hillside above the orchard for more than an hour, two working in tandem: As one released a load and swung south to refill in Lake Casitas, the second could be seen in the near distance.

The crews were “doing extreme, just great,” Floyd said. But the flames continued and he remained unstable.

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