By Max Ufberg, Mark Berman, Eli Rosenberg and Noah Smith Washington Post
Ferocious fires tore through Southern California on Tuesday, burning massive stretches of land in a matter of hours and forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.
As firefighters in Ventura County grappled with an explosive blaze northwest of downtown Los Angeles, others across the region confronted additional fires that burned during the day and forced more evacuations. Authorities issued ominous warnings of more dangers to come during a “multiday event” across the area, as weather forecasters said the region faces “extreme fire danger” through at least Thursday due to intense Santa Ana winds and low humidity that could cause the fires to grow rapidly.
The wildfires are the latest grim chapter in a brutal year for California, coming just months after deadly blazes in the state’s wine country killed dozens of people and razed thousands of buildings.
The biggest fire Tuesday was in Ventura County, where a small blaze quickly went out of control and spread across more than 50,000 acres by the afternoon. The fire – which burned an area nearly as large as Seattle – stretched into the city of Ventura, home to more than 100,000 people.
As the flames continued to spread, the sun rose over Ventura and revealed the damage left behind by what is named the Thomas Fire. Homes were destroyed, and the charred remains of cars sat among heaps of ash. The impact hit home for many of those responding to the blaze: One local fire official told a reporter that he had to call his daughter to tell her that her apartment had burned.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, D, declared a state of emergency in Ventura County, calling the fire “very dangerous” as it spread rapidly. “We’ll continue to attack it with all we’ve got,” Brown said. “It’s critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so.”
What caused the fire remained unknown Tuesday, Lorenzen said, and the blaze’s final effects also were unclear. Authorities said at least 150 structures in Ventura County were destroyed by Tuesday afternoon, but Lorenzen said that number could increase because firefighters were not yet able to assess the damage in most affected areas. He also warned that there was “a high possibility” that more areas will be evacuated.
Some who did were given bad news. Debbie Gennaro, who wiped tears from her eyes as she was consoled by her husband, Mark, said they were told that their home of 12 years had been burned to an ashy husk.
They had packed up clothes, photographs and passports Monday night and headed to a hotel ahead of the fire. The couple is unsure where they will go next.
“This is life in Southern California. This is where we live,” Mark Gennaro said. “I stand on that back hill, and I see all that brush, and I’m like, ‘Something’s going to happen at some point.’ “
The fires Tuesday sparked unusually late in the wildfire season. Unlike other parts of the United States, summer and early fall tend to be dry in California. Wildfires need just three things to start and spread: fuel, dry weather and an ignition source.
The dry weather is significant this week – humidity was just 10 percent Monday morning, and “red flag” fire conditions will last through at least Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.
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 fuel, which is now feeding the wildfires.
People who escaped the fires reported apocalyptic scenes.
Gena Aguayo, 53, of Ventura said she saw fire “coming down the mountain.” When Lorena Lara evacuated with her children 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.”
As the fires forced waves of people to rush from their homes, the contours of daily life were shut down. Schools were closed Tuesday, while some events were canceled amid the fires and power outages. In Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, more than 260,000 people were left without power at some point, Southern California Edison said in a tweet.
Fire officials were blunt about the blaze, saying that it was out of control and that structures throughout the area were under serious threat. Ventura County officials said that “due to the intensity of the fire, crews are having trouble making access, and there are multiple reports of structures on fire.”
Further east, firefighters also hurried to respond to a wildfire north of downtown Los Angeles that likewise expanded quickly, growing to 11,000 acres by early Tuesday afternoon. Officials said that fire began outside the city limits before threatening parts of the Sylmar and Lake View Terrace areas.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a state of emergency in the city and said that more than 30 buildings had burned in the blaze. He urged some 150,000 people in affected areas to evacuate.
Two firefighters were receiving treatment after being injured in the fire, Garcetti said.
“We are facing critical fire behavior, in ways that people may not have experienced in the past,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby said at a news briefing.
“This is going to be a multiday event,” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck warned. “This will not be the only fire.”
Underscoring Beck’s point, Osby said that as he was preparing to brief reporters, his fire department was called to respond to another blaze that had begun to burn in Santa Clarita, Calif. Osby said the county department diverted two helicopters to respond to that fire, which officials said grew to 5,000 acres by Tuesday evening and shut down the interstate there.
The Creek Fire prompted a wave of mandatory evacuations, forcing people to leave about 2,500 homes, and a convalescent hospital evacuated 105 patients, officials said. Osby said several structures had been lost to that blaze.
It was unclear how many people have been injured or killed in the fires. In Ventura County, a battalion chief was injured in a traffic accident Monday night and is expected to recover, said Lorenzen, the fire chief.
The National Weather Service reported that damaging winds and “very critical fire weather conditions” would return late Wednesday night into Thursday, saying the conditions could lead to “very rapid fire growth” and “extreme fire behavior.” The Weather Service issued a “red flag” warning for Ventura and Los Angeles, saying wind gusts between 50 mph and 70 mph are likely through Thursday.
Authorities previously 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.
Once the fire in Ventura County began Monday, it moved “unbelievably fast,” said Ventura County Fire Sgt. Eric Buschow.
Robert Perez, who preaches at the Santa Paula Church of Christ in Ventura County, was driving home from the airport when he first caught word of the Thomas Fire from his daughter, who called to warn him.
Perez said that when he finally got home around 11 p.m., the police were evacuating his street. Perez, 57, quickly loaded his wife, daughter, grandson and pets into his car and drove to the church.
They planned to return home in the early hours of the morning, but the strong Santa Ana winds put their house in danger, so they remained at the church. Perez said his family was joined by several other church members, who he said slept overnight in their cars in the church parking lot.
“The fire was so close to the church, I think it scared the members,” he said. “There were a few members that came and parked in our parking lot but didn’t go inside the church.”
For some, the fires came as a shock. Lance Korthals, of Ventura, said he looked out between his blinds early Tuesday morning and “saw an odd color.” Then he saw that the hills behind his apartment complex “were just completely engulfed in flames.”
Korthals, 66, a retired business executive originally from Detroit, said he then banged on doors trying to alert others in the apartment complex but they had already evacuated, so he hit the road.
“The trees within the complex were already on fire,” Korthals said. “I had to drive around the flames that were already flowing into the road.”
Others, though, said they expected something like this to happen.
“We live in Southern California,” said Kevin Wycoff, 55, who was with his family at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, which was sheltering evacuees. “This [ash] is what we call snow. This is our weather.”
Michelle Wycoff, his wife, added: “We’ll have mudslides coming soon.”
Berman reported from Washington. Travis M. Andrews, Angela Fritz and J. Freedom du Lac in Washington contributed to this report.