‘SLEEP WITH ONE EYE OPEN’
RAGING L.A. WILDFIRES EXPECTED TO GET WORSE
The roaring wild fires burning across Southern California threatened wide swaths of the state Thursday, forcing a wave of new evacuations and shutting down major roadways even as authorities warned that the fire activity could worsen during the day.
With flames racing across Ventura and Los Angeles counties this week, entire communities were emptied as tens of thousands of Californians and visitors grabbed what they could and fled. The infernos burned through untold numbers of buildings, creating scenes of apocalyptic destruction. Fire and choking smoke seemed to be everywhere.
The largest of the wildfires — the Thomas Fire, which spanned about 380 square kilometres in Ventura County, roughly the size of Denver — surrounded Ojai on Thursday morning, officials said, endangering the popular winter retreat that is normally home to about 8,000 people. Most of the Ojai Valley was under a mandatory evacuation order.
The Thomas Fire “continues to burn actively with extreme rates of spread,” officials said Thursday morning. The blaze prompted officials to shut down the 101 Freeway north of Ventura, leaving no way to travel between Ventura and Santa Barbara, the sheriff ’s office said. Officials said they had evacuated more than 50,000 people from 15,000 homes, and some 2,500 personnel were responding to the fire.
The wildfires, already imperilling so many people and places, are only expected to get worse. Forecasters said raging winds on Thursday, combined with low humidity and dry areas, could help fuel new fires. The National Weather Service warned that if new fires do begin, “very rapid spread and extreme fire behaviour is likely.”
Officials were blunt about the potential dangers. On Wednesday night, Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby said it was vital for “people that live in wildland areas that you sleep with one eye open tonight.”
In Los Angeles County, officials were confronting multiple fires that, while smaller, still forced scores of people to abandon their homes. The Creek Fire, burning about 20 square miles, forced its own waves of evacuations, as officials warned of “extreme” fire behaviour and firefighters struggled with “high winds, poor access and steep, rugged terrain.”
The Skirball Fire, which broke out Wednesday, led to mandatory evacuations in the ritzy Bel-Air area and shut down the famous Getty Center. Officials evacuated 1,200 homes across the posh hillside neighbourhoods and stretching south near the University of California at Los Angeles campus. UCLA officials cancelled a men’s basketball game on Wednesday and then cancelled classes Thursday — just two days before final exams were to begin.
Los Angeles officials said that 265 schools in the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles would be closed for the rest of the week as a safety measure.
Not far from the Skirball Fire, residents and visitors weighed whether to stay or go, unsure of what to do. Two roommates who live in the Brentwood area, having moved there six months earlier from Indiana, said they were uncertain facing such a new situation.
“It’s kind hard to tell when to go and when not to go,” said one of the men, 23-yearold Wes Luttrell. “We have our bags packed and are just kind hanging tight.”
Montevis Price, who was visiting Los Angeles from Miami, promptly checked out of his hotel when he saw the blaze.
“I saw the little mountain on fire, and that was it,” Price said. “You can prepare for a hurricane, but you can’t prepare for something that happens all of a sudden.”
Others said they fled with little time to decide what to take.
“They gave us about 30 minutes to evacuate, so I just took my clothes,” said Monica Campo, 27, who lives in the Sylmar area. “My sister left and was complaining that she didn’t even take underwear.”
Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said at a news conference Wednesday that the index that the department uses to assess environmental conditions for the fire risk is at the highest level he has ever seen in his career.
“Our plan here is to try to stop this fire before it becomes something bigger,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at an earlier news briefing. “These are days that break your heart. But these are also days that show the resilience of our city.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown declared states of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties because of the fires. More than 4,000 firefighters and other first responders fanned out across the region to save lives, protect homes and evacuate residents.
Osby, the Los Angeles fire chief, said that many of the firefighters who had been working on the fire since Monday had not slept. Hundreds of other firefighters and engines were en route from Northern California and nearby states.
“You can probably understand that most of our resources are pretty tapped,” he said.
As of Thursday morning, officials had not reported any deaths due to the fires, though some areas that had burned or were burning remained inaccessible.
“When you get those 40to 50-mile-per-hour winds, the fire just rolls like a steam train and you have minutes to get to safety,” said Ventura City Councilman Erik Nasarenko.
He was in a City Council meeting on Tuesday when the evacuation order came.
“It was crazy,” Nasarenko said. “In the middle of the council meeting, the city manager tells me our neighbourhood is on mandatory evacuation, so I raced home, grabbed the guinea pig and the kids and bolted.”
Firefighters monitor a section of the Thomas Fire along the 101 Freeway on Thursday north of Ventura, Calif. Strong winds are rapidly pushing multiple wildfires across the region, shutting down roadways and destroying hundreds of homes and structures.