The roar­ing wild­fires 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.


Smoke from a wild­fire rises be­hind a man­sion in the Bel-Air neigh­bour­hood of Los An­ge­les. The fire, which broke out Wed­nes­day, led to manda­tory evac­u­a­tions.

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