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Southern California fire explodes overnight, forcing tens of thousands to flee

December 5, 2017 - 04:15 pm

An explosive brush fire raced through Southern California with ferocious speed Tuesday, spreading from about 50 acres to an estimated 45,000 acres in a matter of hours, forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee.

Named the Thomas Fire, it began in a canyon near Santa Paula, about 65 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. By 4 a.m. Pacific time, the fire had advanced into the city limits of Ventura, with a population of more than 100,000, emergency officials said.

"The prospects for containment are not good," Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said a news briefing overnight. "Really, Mother Nature's going to decide if we have the ability to put it out."

The cause of the fire was not known Tuesday morning, Lorenzen said.

The fire - which had grown to cover an area roughly the size of Washington, D.C. - quickly displaced scores of people as it began to chew through the region.

At a briefing early Tuesday, Lorenzen said 27,000 people had been evacuated, and "almost none of them know the status of their homes." There was also "a high possibility" that more areas would be evacuated, Lorenzen warned.

At least 150 structures were destroyed by the fire, Lorenzen said, though he added that this number is expected to increase in the coming days, noting that firefighters were not able to assess damage in most areas where the blaze had spread.

"The fire is still out of control and structures continue to be threatened throughout the fire area," officials said in a predawn update. "Due to the intensity of the fire, crews are having trouble making access and there are multiple reports of structures on fire."

Firefighters were also responding to another blaze that erupted further east, this one dubbed the Creek Fire. That fire was spreading north of downtown Los Angeles and had also expanded rapidly, stretching from 500 acres early Tuesday to 2,500 acres within hours.

As the Thomas Fire spread, the Ventura County Fire Department issued a dire warning early Tuesday, saying conditions were expected to worsen.

"Incident commander reporting winds are increasing, expect fire behavior to increase over the entire incident," a department spokesperson tweeted.

While authorities had said overnight that one person was believed to have been killed in a car crash while trying to evacuate, they reversed course and said early Tuesday that no one had been confirmed dead. A fire department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A battalion chief was injured in a traffic accident on Monday night, and is expected to recover, Lorenzen said.

In the cities of Santa Paula and Ventura, evacuation notices were given to 27,000 residents as both places declared states of emergency. Multiple schools were closed Tuesday, and more than 7,500 homes are under mandatory evacuation, authorities said in a statement early Tuesday morning.

The National Weather Service reported that damaging winds and "very critical fire weather conditions" would remain Tuesday and return late Wednesday night into Thursday, warning that these condition 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 and 70 mph are likely through Thursday.

Authorities had 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.

Firefighters were also responding Tuesday to a brush fire in Los Angeles County. The Creek Fire broke out across the county's foothills in an area northwest of Pasadena, according to the National Weather Service, and Cal Fire said it had grown to encompass 500 acres by sunrise on Tuesday.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department said on Twitter that the three-alarm blaze had prompted mandatory evacuations. Los Angeles city fire officials said the Creek Fire began outside the city before threatening parts of the Sylmar and Lake View Terrace areas.

Early Tuesday morning, officials said 500 firefighters were on the scene of the spreading Thomas Fire with more resources heading there, along with scores of law enforcement officers responding to help with evacuations and road closures.

Four helicopters were making water drops to fight the flames, but by 9:30 p.m. local time on Monday they were grounded after conditions were deemed unsafe to fly at night.

"It's always difficult and somewhat dangerous to fly at night, so depending on different conditions and the geographic challenges is how they evaluate whether or not they can operate at night," Ventura County firefighter Jason Hodge told the Los Angeles Times.

Choppers and fixed-wing aircraft "are expected to attack the fire at daybreak," officials said in a statement.

The fire also caused outages throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, leaving more than 260,000 people without power, Southern California Edison said in a tweet.

The blaze began Monday in the hills near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, the Los Angeles Times reported. It was first reported at 6:24 p.m. Pacific Time, Ventura County Fire Sgt. Eric Buschow told The Washington Post and has moved "unbelievably fast" since then.

A mixture of dry foliage from a continued drought, low humidity and sustained winds of more than 30 miles per hour throughout the evening led to its explosive growth, according to Buschow. Some outlets reported the winds exceeded 50 mph.