The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - Mario Tama, Getty

Fire­fight­ers on Thurs­day mon­i­tor a sec­tion of the Thomas fire along U.S. 101 north of Ven­tura, Calif. The fire­fight­ers were us­ing a flare de­vice to burn off brush close to the road­side. Strong Santa Ana winds were rapidly push­ing mul­ti­ple wild­fires across the re­gion, de­stroy­ing hun­dreds of homes and struc­tures.

A brush f ire driven by gusty winds that have plagued South­ern Cal­i­for­nia all week ex­ploded rapidly Thurs­day north of San Diego, de­stroy­ing dozens of trailer homes in a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity and killing race horses at an elite train­ing fa­cil­ity.

The fire ex­panded to 4 square miles in a mat­ter of hours and tore through the tightly packed Ran­cho Mon­ser­ate Coun­try Club com­mu­nity in the small city of Fall­brook, known for its av­o­cado or­chards and horse ranches. At least two peo­ple were hos­pi­tal­ized with burns.

The de­struc­tive blaze broke out as fire­fight­ers tried to cor­ral the largest fire in the state that was burn­ing around Ven­tura — 130 miles to the north — and de­stroyed 430 build­ings as it grew to 180 square miles. Fire crews were also fight­ing large fires around Los An­ge­les, but they made enough progress to lift most evac­u­a­tion or­ders.

Like other fires that have bro­ken out this week, Fall­brook has a his­tory of de­struc­tive blazes. Ten years ago, as a se­ries of fires raced across South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, a blaze in Fall­brook in­jured five peo­ple, de­stroyed 206 homes and burned 14 square miles.

Thurs­day’s fire prompted the closure of Cal­i­for­nia 76 in both di­rec­tions and evac­u­a­tions in an area near the Camp Pendle­ton Marine Corps Base. Evac­u­a­tion cen­ters were set up in schools and casi­nos.

Jim Per­att was in Las Ve­gas on business when his wife called and said she was round­ing up their two horses and evac­u­at­ing their prop­erty in Bon­sall, a com­mu­nity of 4,000 amid the rolling hills of ru­ral San Diego County.

“She saw noth­ing but smoke and flames all around,” Per­att said.

As the flames ap­proached the elite San Luis Rey Downs train­ing fa­cil­ity for thor­ough­breds, many of the more than 450 horses were cut loose to pre­vent them from be­ing trapped in their stalls if barns caught fire, said Mac McBride of the Del Mar Thor­ough­bred Club.

Horse trainer Scott Hansen said he knows that some of his 30 horses at the fa­cil­ity died.

“I don’t know how many are liv­ing and how many are dead,” he said. “I guess I’ll have to fig­ure that out in the morn­ing.”

Most of the horses were saved, McBride said, and were be­ing loaded to go to the Del Mar Fair­grounds.

Some ranch­ers posted ur­gent pleas on Twit­ter for help mov­ing horses, in­clud­ing Rawhide Ranch, well-known for run­ning horse rid­ing camps for chil­dren and teens.

The fire and a smaller one 12 miles north in Mur­ri­eta broke out the day af­ter state of­fi­cials sent an un­prece­dented alert to cell­phones across seven South­ern Cal­i­for­nia coun­ties warn­ing that strong Santa Ana winds could cause ex­treme fire dan­ger. Al­though hur­ri­cane-force winds pre­dicted did not ma­te­ri­al­ize, fire­fight­ers faced gusts that fanned flames and put thou­sands of homes in jeop­ardy.

Along the coast be­tween Ven­tura and Santa Bar­bara, tiny beach com­mu­ni­ties were un­der siege as fire leapt from steep hill­sides across U.S. 101.

“We drove through a wall of flames,” Wendy Frank said, de­scrib­ing her or­deal af­ter evac­u­at­ing her horses from Ojai on Wed­nes­day night. “I didn’t know if we’d make it. I just put the ac­cel­er­a­tor down. I know we were go­ing over 100 mph, we could have been go­ing much more, and just hoped for the best.”

Fires flared up Thurs­day along the high­way, forc­ing an evac­u­a­tion of the dozens of homes at Faria Beach.

“Any­one in your homes still, you need to leave now,” a Cal­i­for­nia High­way Pa­trol of­fi­cer said through a loud­speaker while driving down a smoke-shrouded street. “The fire is here; you need to leave.”

Joseph Ruffner had left ear­lier in the week but re­turned and said he was stay­ing put this time.

“This morn­ing there was a wall of fire back right over here,” he said. “I didn’t think it was no big deal, but it’s com­ing back to burn what it didn’t burn yes­ter­day.”

The high­way, which runs the length of the state and is a ma­jor com­muter cor­ri­dor to Los An­ge­les, was closed in­ter­mit­tently along the 28-mile stretch be­tween Ven­tura and Santa Bar­bara.

The Ven­tura and LA-area fires have put tens of thou­sands of peo­ple un­der evac­u­a­tion or­ders and de­stroyed nearly 200 homes and build­ings, a fig­ure al­most certain to rise.

A woman was found dead in a wrecked car in an evac­u­a­tion zone near the city of Santa Paula, where the Ven­tura County blaze be­gan Mon­day, but of­fi­cials could not say whether the ac­ci­dent was fire-re­lated.

Kyle Grillot, AFP

U.S. 101 is closed af­ter the Thomas fire jumped the high­way to­ward the Pa­cific Coast High­way in Ven­tura County, Calif.

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