More than 100,000 people were ordered to flee their homes across the region, running from fires without any idea of when they could return or what they might find when they do. They grabbed pets, clothes and mementos before hurrying off in search of shelter.
Veteran firefighters described some of the blazes around the region — at least a half-dozen, delivering another blow to the state less than two months after historically destructive wildfires scorched the counties of Northern California’s wine country — as unlike anything they had ever encountered. Thousands of firefighters and other first responders fanned out to save lives, protect homes and shepherd people to safety, joined by reinforcements that flocked in from other parts of the country.
While the most severe winds are forecast to slacken Friday and Saturday, lessening the fire danger some, the National Weather Service cautioned that the risk of fires will remain elevated through Sunday as conditions remain abnormally dry and breezy.
There were some positive signs Thursday. Authorities had not reported any deaths due to the blazes by Thursday, though they spoke bluntly about the danger that remained through week’s end. In Los Angeles, where three separate fires had burned homes, sent residents fleeing and generated apocalyptic images normally seen in Holly wood movies, officials announced that the majority of residents who had evacuated would be allowed to return to their homes.
Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) cautioned that it was “still an insecure time,” and warned that high winds could pick up again at any time. Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said the forecast of the city’s weather and humidity conditions for Friday still put it in the “extreme range” of fire risk.
Residents who evacuated described a nightmarish set of conditions.
Patricia Hampton, 48, said she and her boyfriend woke up at her house in Ventura on Tuesday night to the sound of helicopters. Outside the ground was covered in ash, the air so smoky it was hard to breathe. The two packed backpacks and left on bicycles, only to find their neighborhood turned into a disaster zone. A power outage had left the area in darkness, except for the flames pulsing the hills on both sides of her. And it was “wickedly windy,” Hampton said.
“We didn’t know what had happened. We rode down into town trying to make sense of what we were seeing — police everywhere, firetrucks, helicopters,” she said in an interview at a temporary shelter that had been set up by the Red Cross at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. “It was like a war zone. You could hear transformers blowing up. Yeah, it was gnarly.”
The Thomas Fire in Ventura County, the state’s biggest active blaze, continued to grow, expanding to 115,000 acres — about 180 square miles — and destroying more than 400 buildings in Ventura County. Officials warned that even as the powerful Santa Ana winds weakened they posed a new risk: an element of unpredictability, particularly dangerous for those fighting the blaze.
Ron Lane, an official in San Diego County, where a new blaze broke out Thursday and began to spread rapidly, said the county never experienced December winds like these before. Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles told The Los Angeles Times that the air is the driest it has been in recorded history. And fire officials in Los Angeles said the “brush burning” index they use to calculate fire risk from environmental conditions was the highest they had ever seen by mid-week.
Officials across the region continued to warn about the threat of new fires to grow and spread. The San Diego County blaze, dubbed the Lilac Fire, started in an area north of the city around 11 a.m. Thursday. It had grown to more than 4,000 acres by Thursday night.
Two people were taken to a local burn center with injuries and at least 20 buildings had burned in the Lilac blaze, officials said at a news conference. Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who had declared emergencies in Ventura and Los Angeles, announced an emergency in San Diego County as officials worked to organize evacuation plans.
“We are nowhere near the end of this,” said Lane, who warned of more evacuations to come. “There are thousands of homes that are within the path of these fires.”
Aerial footage taken from a news helicopter showed it burning through what local news reports identified as a retirement community.
The fires in Southern California come on the heels of historically destructive fire season in the state. The conflagration that spread across Sonoma and Napa counties in October burned more than 200,000 acres, killed 42 people — the highest death toll ever for a fire in the state — and destroyed at least 8,400 buildings and homes. And authorities said the hot, dry and windy conditions this week in Southern California, which experienced a record heatwave in late October, made the terrain particularly vulnerable to explosive wildfires.
The Thomas Fire covered a massive swath of terrain in Ventura County, edging up against Carpinteria, a city of 13,000 people just down Highway 101 from Santa Barbara. Officials issued voluntary and mandatory evacuation orders for different parts of the town on Thursday night and said the fire was inching closer to Santa Barbara.
Further down the 101, La Conchita, a tiny town, was also threatened by flames on Thursday. Fire crews managed to keep the blaze from the town’s edge, but new lines, fanned by off-shore winds, remained a peril.
Fred Burris, a Ventura County Fire Department battalion chief, was finishing a 24-hour shift that included helping to protect La Conchita. New fire lines kept popping up along a 15-mile stretch of Highway 150 that came inland from Carpinteria towards Ojai, a popular vacation getaway set inland that is home to about 8,000 people, on Thursday, officials said.
“Everyone says, ‘Yeah, this is the worst,’ but it really is the high-water mark for me,” said Burris, a 36-year veteran of the department. “We’ve never seen a fire with this much speed and range.”
Along Rincon Mountain Road a few miles south of Carpinteria, fire crews fought several lines of flames throughout Thursday, focused on protecting homes and ranches. A dozen Ventura County fire engines staged along the road near midday, the fire burning in the avocado and citrus orchards along the ridge-line above.
Tall stands of eucalyptus shook with the strengthening wind, which was driving the flames toward several multimillion-dollar homes, a brewery and a small vineyard. Helicopters buzzed overhead, tailing “bambi buckets” beneath. The buckets open from the bottom, scooping up loads of water from the Pacific and Lake Casitas to drop near threatened homes and buildings.
Near the shelter at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, firefighters stood and sat aside their equipment as they took breaks from battling fires in nearby. More than 100 firetrucks from many states were parked nearby.
“Yesterday, you had to chew the air before you breathed it,” said Shane Nollsch, who had traveled from Lyon County, Nev. on Wednesday to help fight the fires.
The California National Guard said it had mobilized more than 1,300 personnel to help confront the wildfires.
Even as officials began removing evacuation orders in Los Angeles County, the Rye and Creek fires continued burning through a combined 30 square miles north of Los Angeles’ downtown. The impact of the Skirball Fire, which caused the University of California Los Angeles to cancel classes on Thursday, could be seen on Interstate 405, the famously congested roadway shut down by the flames rolling down the mountains to its east. The freeway had acted as a divide: the hills on its west side had been spared.
At a shelter at a recreation center in Sylmar for people who had fled the Creek Fire, Frank Grossman, 70, was sifting through boxes of donated clothes. He had a quarter-sized burn on his cheek where his skin was peeling off. He described himself as homeless, and said the fire had sent him fleeing from the tent he lived in on a property Tujunga.
“Right now, I’d like a ride home to get down there and see if anything’s left,” he said.
In the rush to get out, he had left his wallet behind.
“I can’t get money out of the bank without my ID,” he said. “You know it’s tough, I’m 70 years old.”
Ivonna Ferrea, 52, of Slymar, had been able to grab her passport, birth certificate and some money, but little else.
“It’s difficult, I don’t know anything about my home,” she said.
About 10 miles south of Carpinteria, Richard Floyd watched flames burn down a steep hillside toward his aunt’s 32-acre avocado orchard, flaring with the wind gusts. For hours, the fire was close enough to his cabin, set in a bowl between hills, that you could hear it crackle and pop.
Helicopters dropped water on the hillside above the orchard for more than an hour, two working in tandem: As one dropped a load and swung south to refill in Lake Casitas, the second could be seen in the near distance.
The crews were “doing great, just great,” Floyd said. But the flames persisted and he remained uneasy.
Berman reported from Washington. Noah Smith in Los Angeles; Soo Youn in Ventura, Calif.; and Travis Andrews, J. Freedom du Lac, Jason Samenow and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.