California Fires Fueled by Powerful Santa Ana Winds Force New Evacuations As Crews Fight to Save Ojai

December 7, 2017

Crews battling the largest of five aggressive wildfires burning in Southern California are fighting to save the town of Ojai as powerful Santa Ana winds continue to fuel the blazes Thursday.

Ventura County sheriff's Sgt. Eric Buschow told the Associated Press flames from the Thomas fire in Ventura County were moving closer and beginning to surround the popular resort town, prompting officials to expand evacuation orders there to include nearly the entire town of 30,000.

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Officials said Santa Ana wind conditions could reach the worst levels the state has ever seen Thursday. Overnight, winds were clocked at 85 mph.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott told the Associated Press that Thursday's wind wildfire threat is purple, which means conditions are extremely dangerous and any fires that erupt will burn uncontrollably. The color has never been used before.

“We are in the beginning of a protracted wind event,” Pimlott told the Los Angeles Times.

“There will be no ability to fight fire in these kinds of winds,” Pimlott said. “At the end of the day, we need everyone in the public to listen and pay attention. This is not ‘watch the news and go about your day.’ This is pay attention minute-by-minute … keep your head on a swivel.”

A fleet of aircraft and nearly 1,800 firefighters are battling the Thomas fire, which is only 5 percent contained. An estimated 12,000 buildings are in danger.

The 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. By Wednesday night, the fire had grown to more than 140 square miles. 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.

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

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."

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 and is home to about 110,000 people.

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

Skirball Fire Threatens

In Bel-Air, a wildfire that prompted authorities to order evacuations and shut down both directions of the 405 Freeway grew to 475 acres Wednesday, KABC-TV reports. Firefighters say they have managed to stop the growth of the blaze, according to AP.  Currently, there are few flames visible and crews are focusing on the blaze's southwest corner.

The brush fire was first spotted in the hills near the 405, 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 freeway were closed, KABC-TV said. All lanes have since been reopened.

Several neighborhoods threatened by the blaze were evacuated shortly after it was sparked at around 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, according to the L.A. Police Department.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that at least four and possibly six homes have been destroyed by the blaze, AP reports.

"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." 

Officials at the University of California, Los Angeles canceled Wednesday classes due to traffic snarls caused by the wildfire, AP reports. A scheduled men's basketball game and all other athletic team workouts and practices were also canceled. 

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 AP. 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.

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 18 square miles since it was first reported around 4 a.m. Tuesday in the hills near homes off Little Tujunga Canyon Road, KABC-TV reports. Officials evacuated 2,500 homes and the 210 Freeway was shut down but later reopened. The fire was 5 percent contained Wednesday evening. 

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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