'The Flames Have Never Come So Close': Southern California Wildfire Burns Homes in Bel-Air

Sean Breslin
Published: December 6, 2017

Authorities ordered evacuations for several neighborhoods in Bel-Air and closed both directions of the 405 Freeway as a new wildfire burned multiple homes Wednesday morning in Southern California.

The brush fire was spotted in the hills near the 405 Freeway, not far from the Getty Center, in western Los Angeles. It was not yet known if the museum was in any danger from the so-called Skirball Fire, but northbound lanes of the 405 Freeway were closed, KABC-TV said. Several neighborhoods threatened by the 50-acre fire were evacuated shortly after the fire was sparked at around 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, according to the L.A. Police Department.

"We don't have a good feel on which direction this fire is heading," Los Angeles Fire Department spokeswoman Margaret Stewart told KTLA.

(MORE: Why California's Wildfires Are Worse in the Fall)

Residents faced a terrifying morning as they had little time to flee their homes in Bel-Air.

"I was going to die in this house," 83-year-old Beverly Freeman told the L.A. Times. "The flames have never come so close."

Hundreds of firefighters continued their battle Wednesday against five aggressive wildfires that quickly grew out of control in Southern California, fueled by strong Santa Ana winds.

Upwards of 150,000 people have been ordered to evacuate because of the conflagrations, according to the Associated Press. The largest of the fires, named the Thomas Fire, was sparked first and has since burned more than 101 square miles – more than twice the size of San Francisco.

Hours later, another fire was reported Tuesday morning in the Kagel Canyon area, east of Ventura and north of Los Angeles. Named the Creek Fire, it quickly burned 17 square miles and threatened homes, according to the L.A. Times.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in response to the fires.

Thousands Flee as Inferno Invades Ventura

The Thomas Fire was first reported in the mountains just north of Santa Paula, California, around 6:30 p.m. Monday, about 50 miles west-northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

The wildfire quickly grew to more than 101 square miles in a little over 24 hours, prompting evacuations in the cities of Santa Paula and Ventura. Evacuation shelters were set up at Nordhoff High School in Ojai and at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

Late Tuesday night, the blaze jumped Highway 101 and continued moving toward the coast. This prompted new evacuations, the AP reported.

Authorities suspect many more homes have been lost beyond the 150 already reported to be destroyed by the fire in Ventura County. An estimated 12,000 homes remain threatened by the inferno.

"The fire growth is just absolutely exponential," Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen told the AP. "All that firefighters can do when we have winds like this is get out ahead, evacuate people and protect structures."

An early-morning view of the Thomas fire in Ventura County, California, on Dec. 5, 2017.
(Ventura County Fire Department)

Officials initially said one person was killed in a vehicle crash on a road closed by the wildfire, but authorities later said the report was inaccurate, and only a dog was found dead in the car.

"This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly, but we'll continue to attack it with all we've got," Brown said in a press release. "It's critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so."

The fire had 0 percent perimeter containment, according to the Ventura County Fire Department.

"It's pretty bad. Hasn't been like this. Maybe 15 years is the last time it happened, and that time it burned maybe to the back of the yards – everywhere," Santa Paula resident Gilbert Acevedo told KABC.

Local media confirmed the Vista del Mar behavioral healthcare facility was destroyed, but all patients were safely evacuated.

"The prospects for containment are not good," said Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen at an early Tuesday morning briefing. "Really, Mother Nature is going to decide."

(MORE: Little Relief in Sight as California's Rainy Season Starts Dry)

About 1,000 firefighters were on the scene, and more were on the way. The Ventura County Fire Department said one firefighter was injured battling the blaze; the L.A. Times said he was hit by a car while protecting homes.

Santa Ana winds up to 50 mph were fanning the flames, pushing the fire's perimeter rapidly toward the west-southwest, toward the Ventura County coast. Spot fires were reported ahead of the main fire perimeter.

The National Weather Service warned Monday afternoon these strong Santa Ana winds, combined with very low humidity, provided an ideal setup for "very rapid fire growth." The strongest and longest-duration Santa Ana winds of the season, so far, were expected to continue through Thursday.

At least 263,000 customers were without power when the fire affected Southern California Edison transmission lines in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, from the cities of Santa Barbara to Oxnard. Most of those outages were restored later Tuesday morning, the company said.

The cause of the fire is unknown.

Ventura is some 60 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The city is home to about 110,000 people.

Creek Fire Burns in Kagel Canyon

Tuesday morning, officials announced a second fire was moving quickly in Southern California. Firefighters responded to the scene of the so-called Creek Fire in Kagel Canyon near Sylmar, and evacuations were ordered.

The blaze has burned 17 square miles since it was first reported around 4 a.m. in the hills near homes off Little Tujunga Canyon Road Tuesday, KABC-TV reports. Officials evacuated 2,500 homes and the 210 Freeway was shut down.

Helicopters were deployed to fight the fire, the report added. The cause of the fire wasn't immediately known.

Rye Fire Grows Quickly in Santa Clarita

A third wildfire was reported later Tuesday morning in the Santa Clarita area. It has since burned more than 7 square miles and shut down a freeway.

First reported at 9:30 a.m. PST Tuesday morning, the so-called Rye Fire is 5 percent contained, according to KABC-TV. The blaze forced officials to shut down both directions of Interstate 5 at State Route 126, the report added. The roadway has since been reopened.

Evacuation orders were underway for those in the Westridge community and residents along Rye Canyon Loop, KABC also said. A power outage has been reported as a result of the fire and the sheriff's office phone system was down due to an influx of calls about the outages.

Santa Clarita is located about 35 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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