Ferocious fires tore through Southern California on Tuesday, burning massive stretches of land in a matter of hours and forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.
As firefighters in Ventura County grappled with an explosive blaze northwest of downtown Los Angeles, others across the region confronted additional fires that burned during the day and forced additional evacuations. Authorities issued ominous warnings of more dangers to come during a “multi-day event” across the area, as weather forecasters said the region faces “extreme fire danger” through at least Thursday due to intense Santa Ana winds and low humidity that could cause the fires to grow rapidly.
The wildfires are the latest grim chapter in a brutal year for California, coming just months after deadly blazes in the state’s wine country killed dozens of people and razed thousands of buildings.
The biggest fire Tuesday was in Ventura County, where a small blaze quickly went out of control as it spread across more than 50,000 acres by the afternoon. The blaze – which burned an area nearly as large as Seattle – stretched into the city of Ventura, home to more than 100,000 people.
“The prospects for containment are not good,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said at a news briefing as the fire was beginning its aggressive expansion. “Really, Mother Nature’s going to decide when we have the ability to put it out.”
As the flames continued to spread, the sun rose over Ventura and revealed the damage left behind by what is named the Thomas Fire. Homes were destroyed and the charred remains of cars sat among heaps of ash. The impact hit home for many of those responding to the blaze: One local fire official told a reporter that he had to call his daughter to tell her that her apartment had burned.
California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared a state of emergency in Ventura County.
“This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly, but we’ll continue to attack it with all we’ve got,” Brown said in a statement. “It’s critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so.”
What caused the fire remained unknown Tuesday, Lorenzen said. The fire’s ultimate impact also remained unclear. Authorities said at least 150 structures in Ventura County were destroyed by Tuesday afternoon, but Lorenzen said that number could increase in coming days because firefighters were not able to assess the damage in most affected areas. He also warned that there is “a high possibility” that more areas will be evacuated.
Lorenzen said 27,000 people were evacuated, and “almost none of them know the status of their homes.”
Some of those who did were given bad news. Debbie Gennaro, who wiped tears from her eyes as she was consoled by her husband, Mark, said they were told that their home of 12 years has been burned to an ashy husk.
They packed up clothes, photographs and passports on Monday night and headed to a hotel; the couple is unsure where they will go next.
“This is life in Southern California. This is where we live,” Mark said. “I stand on that back hill and I see all that brush and I’m like, ‘Something’s going to happen at some point.’ “
People who escaped the fires reported apocalyptic scenes. Gena Aguayo, 53, of Ventura, said she saw fire “coming down the mountain.” When Lorena Lara evacuated with her children on Tuesday morning after initially staying put, she said the wind was so strong it was blowing ashes into her home.
“I’ve never experienced something like that,” Lara, 42, said. “Maybe in Santa Barbara, but we didn’t expect it here.”
Fire officials offered blunt words about the blaze.
“The fire is still out of control and structures continue to be threatened throughout the fire area,” officials in Ventura County said in an update posted online. “Due to the intensity of the fire, crews are having trouble making access and there are multiple reports of structures on fire.”
Further east, firefighters also hurried to respond to a wildfire that erupted north of downtown Los Angeles and also expanded quickly, growing to 11,000 acres by early Tuesday afternoon. Officials said that fire began outside the city limits before threatening parts of the Sylmar and Lake View Terrace areas.
“We are facing critical fire behavior, in ways that people may not have experienced in the past,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby said at a news briefing. “To our citizens, it is extremely critical that when you’re asked to evacuate, evacuate early. We’ve had experience in other fires throughout this region that when we’ve had fatalities, it’s because people did not heed the early-warning evacuations.”
Osby said that a number of structures had been lost to that blaze, dubbed the Creek Fire, but an exact count was not immediately available.
“This is going to be a multi-day event,” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck warned. “This will not be the only fire.”
Underscoring Beck’s point, Osby said that even as he was preparing to brief reporters, his fire department was called to respond to another fire that had begun to burn in Santa Clarita, California. Osby said the county department diverted two helicopters to respond to that blaze, which officials said grew to 1,000 acres by midday Tuesday and shut down the interstate there.
The Creek Fire prompted a wave of mandatory evacuations, forcing people to leave about 2,500 homes, and a convalescent hospital evacuated 105 patients, officials said.
It was unclear how many people have been injured or killed in the fires. In Ventura County, a battalion chief was injured in a traffic accident on Monday night and is expected to recover, Lorenzen said.
These fires sparked unusually late in the wildfire season, which typically runs from spring to late fall. That is because, unlike other parts of the United States, summer and early fall tend to be dry in California. And wildfires need just three things to start and spread: fuel, dry weather and an ignition source.
The dry weather is significant this week – humidity was just 10 percent on Monday morning and “red flag” fire conditions will last through at least Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.
The fire’s fuel, meanwhile, was a year in the making. After an epic, multi-year drought, California finally got the rain and snow it needed last winter and vegetation rebounded. The hills turned green and the brush thickened, but now that conditions have turned dry again, that leaves plenty on the ground to feed wildfires.
As the fires forced waves of people to rush from their homes, the contours of daily life were shut down. Multiple schools were closed Tuesday, while some events were canceled amid the fires and power outages. In Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, more than 260,000 people were left without power at some point, Southern California Edison said in a tweet.
The National Weather Service reported that damaging winds and “very critical fire weather conditions” would return late Wednesday night into Thursday, saying the conditions could lead to “very rapid fire growth” and “extreme fire behavior.” The NWS issued a red flag warning for Ventura and Los Angeles, saying wind gusts between 50 mph and 70 mph are likely through Thursday.
Authorities had previously warned that a combination of strong winds and low humidity this week could increase the wildfire risk across Southern California. Cal Fire said it had moved resources from the northern part of the state to the south and prepared aircraft and fire equipment to respond.
Once the fire in Ventura County began on Monday, it moved “unbelievably fast,” said Ventura County Fire Sgt. Eric Buschow.
Robert Perez, who preaches at the Santa Paula Church of Christ in Ventura County, was driving home from the airport when he first caught word of the Thomas Fire from his daughter, who called to warn him.
Perez said that when he finally got home at around 11 p.m., the police were already evacuating his street. Perez, 57, quickly loaded his wife, daughter, grandson, and pets into his car and drove to the church.
They planned to return home in the early hours of the morning, but the strong Santa Ana winds put their house in danger, so they remained at the church. Perez said his family was joined by several other church members, who he said slept overnight in their cars in the church parking lot.
“The fire was so close to the church, I think it scared the members,” he said. “There were a few members that came and parked in our parking lot, but didn’t go inside the church.”
For some, the fires came as a shock. Lance Korthals of Ventura said he looked out his blinds early Tuesday morning and “saw an odd color.” Then he saw that the hills behind his apartment complex “were just completely engulfed in flames.”
Korthals, 66, a retired business executive originally from Detroit, said he then banged on doors trying to alert others in the apartment complex, but they had already evacuated, so he eventually hit the road.
“The trees within the complex were already on fire,” Korthals said. “I had to drove around the flames that were already flowing into the road.”
Others, though, said they expected something like this to happen.
“We live in Southern California,” said Kevin Wycoff, 55, who was with his family at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, which was sheltering evacuees. “This [ash] is what we call snow. This is our weather.”
Michelle Wycoff, his wife, added: “We’ll have mudslides coming soon.”
Berman reported from Washington. Travis M. Andrews, Angela Fritz and J. Freedom du Lac in Washington contributed to this report.