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Southern California Fires Surpass 140,000 Acres As Santa Ana Winds Drive Flames

Motorists on Highway 101 watch flames from the Thomas fire leap above the roadway north of Ventura, Calif., on Wednesday.

Motorists on Highway 101 watch flames from the Thomas fire leap above the roadway north of Ventura, Calif., on Wednesday.

Noah Berger, AP

The fierce Santa Ana winds that have driven massive wildfires in Southern California could get even stronger on Thursday, officials warned, as four fires near Los Angeles had grown to engulf more than 100,000 acres.

Forecasters were predicting gusts of up to 80 mph, likely grounding helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft used to drop water on the blazes.

“The forecast for tomorrow is purple,” Ken Pimlott, director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said, referring to the only color above red on the wind scale. “We’ve never used purple before.”

As The Associated Press notes, “The wilder winds could easily make new fires explode too, as one did Wednesday in Los Angeles’ exclusive Bel-Air section, where a fire consumed multimillion-dollar houses that give the rich and famous sweeping views of Los Angeles.”

Mary Plummer, a reporter with member station KPCC in Pasadena, tells Morning Edition that “these fires are affecting a real range of geographic areas — some very urban, some very rural. So, it’s a real logistical problem.”

Cal Fire estimates that hundreds of structures, including 200 homes, have been destroyed, and that as many as 200,000 people are under evacuation orders. Some 12,000 structures are considered in danger.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Los Angeles and Ventura counties which will free up state resources.

Remarkably, so far there have been no deaths reported.

But many people have been evacuated and many have already lost homes.

Patricia Hampton, a homeless woman who lost her tent, was sheltered at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, which is serving as an evacuation center.

“It was surreal,” she tells KPCC. “The entire town was pitch black. I looked to the left and the hillside was on fire; I looked to my right and it was just coming over the ridge, huge flames.”

Member station KCLU says that firefighters have made progress, raising containment of the Thomas Fire, the largest of several, from zero to 5 percent.

However, Ventura County Fire Captain Tony McHale said it was still a long way from being brought under control.

“There’s enough fire around; there’s dry fuel; the humidity is still low. We’re still very much in danger. So we can’t let our guard down at all,” McHale said.

The Thomas Fire has burned a 10-mile path from Santa Paula to the Pacific Ocean, jumping U.S. Highway 101 along the way.

The Los Angeles Times reports that “As flames raged toward neighborhoods in Ojai, Carpenteria and Fillmore late Wednesday, officials issued new evacuation orders in Ojai Valley, notifying residents with an emergency cellphone alert. Authorities said they were helping residents of five assisted-living facilities evacuate, while people at Ojai Hospital were advised to shelter in place.”

Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) adds: “Areas northeast of Ojai have seen the most fire growth since Wednesday morning, officials told reporters. Authorities say they are conducting damage assessments in the area to determine how many homes have been damaged.”

In Los Angeles County, the Creek Fire, affecting 12,605 acres, is just 5 percent contained and the Rye Fire, of 7,000 acres, is 10 percent contained and the much smaller Skirball Fire is considered 5 percent contained and has prompted the evacuation of about 700 homes, one apartment building and an elementary school, according to SCPR.

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