Ferocious wildfires continued to rage across Southern California on Wednesday, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing thousands of residents to flee as forecasters and officials warned that dangerous fires could endanger the region for days.
The wave of fires that broke out early this week spread quickly and mercilessly, with the largest blaze expanding across a region almost as big as the city of Orlando. Emergency responders hurried to evacuate residents, protect homes and shut down roads across the region, even as authorities warned that the biggest fire was "still out of control" early Wednesday and keeping crews from entering the area.
This largest fire, known as the Thomas Fire, had erupted in Ventura County northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The Thomas Fire tore across 65,000 acres by Wednesday morning, and the blaze destroyed hundreds of homes, threatened 12,000 structures and forced 27,000 people to evacuate, officials said. Most of those who fled were left wondering whether their residences were among those destroyed.
More than 1,000 firefighters were on the scene, county officials said in a notice posted online, but they were unable to enter the fire area "due to the intensity of the fire." Stretches of cities and communities were evacuated, while numerous schools across the area were shut down.
In Los Angeles County, firefighters rushed to respond to a pair of blazes that broke out on Tuesday. The Creek Fire north of downtown Los Angeles burned across 11,000 acres by Tuesday night, while the smaller Rye Fire churned through 7,000 acres by Wednesday morning.
On Wednesday morning, authorities rushed to respond to yet another blaze, this one in the city of Los Angeles. The growing brush fire - dubbed the Skirball Fire - prompted a wave of evacuations in the Bel Air area and shut down Interstate 405, the famously busy freeway. With the fire raging not far from the Getty Center, that facility kept its doors closed on Wednesday.
The fires across the southern part of the state tore through neighborhoods, burning out cars and homes, sending thick waves of smoke into the air and leaving behind waves of ash and destruction. Thousands of people also lost power due to the fires.
Gov. Jerry Brown, D, declared states of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties due to the fires, and his office said the blazes threatened thousands of homes.
"It's critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so," Brown said in a statement.
So far, officials have not announced any deaths due to the fires, but they stressed that people faced mortal danger if they did not heed evacuation orders. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti, D, declared a state of emergency and said that more than 30 buildings had burned in the blaze. He also said that some 150,000 people lived in evacuation areas.
"We want to be really clear, folks," he said. "We have lost structures; we have not lost lives. Do not wait. Leave your homes."
Three firefighters in Los Angeles were injured and taken to a hospital, all in stable condition, according to local officials who did not elaborate on their injuries. A battalion chief in Ventura was injured in a traffic accident and was expected to recover.
The coming days could continue to present new risks of additional wildfires, authorities warned. Charlie Beck, the Los Angeles police chief, said the region was facing "a multiday event," adding: "This will not be the only fire."
These latest wildfires come during a brutal year for California, burning just months after deadly blazes in the state's wine country killed dozens of people and razed thousands of buildings. Wildfires need three things to start and spread - fuel, dry weather and an ignition source - and the fires this week had ready access to all three.
The fire's fuel was a year in the making. After an epic, multiyear drought, California finally got the rain and snow it needed last winter, and that allowed vegetation to rebound. The hills turned green and the brush thickened. But as the weather turned dry, it created plentiful amounts of fuel, which are now feeding the wildfires.
Cal Fire said it has moved resources from the northern part of the state to the south and prepared aircraft and fire equipment to respond. Tim Chavez with Cal Fire said a lack of rain in the region in recent months has made conditions particularly susceptible to a wildfire.
"This year … no rain came in September, October and November in Southern California. So we have incredibly desiccated dry fuels," he said.
The National Weather Service said the risks could last through Friday, issuing "red flag" warnings of heightened fire risk for Los Angeles and Ventura counties through Friday. A combination of low humidity and surging winds could lead to "very rapid fire growth" and "extreme fire behavior," the service warned.
Aerial images showed huge clouds of thick smoke billowing around the Los Angeles region.
Some people driven from their homes by the fires said they saw the danger that loomed.
"This is life in Southern California. This is where we live," said Mark Gennaro, who was told his home of 12 years was destroyed. "I stand on that back hill and I see all that brush and I'm like, 'Something's gonna happen at some point.'"
Those who escaped the fires reported apocalyptic scenes at their homes and when they tried to leave.
"The trees within the complex were already on fire," Lance Korthals, 66, who fled his apartment complex in Ventura. "I had to drive around the flames that were already flowing into the road."
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," said Lara, 42. "Maybe in Santa Barbara, but we didn't expect it here."
The Washington Post's Max Ufberg and Noah Smith in Ventura and Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this report.