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Wildfires In Southern California Force Thousands Of People To Flee

Firefighters work to put out a blaze burning homes early Tuesday in Ventura, Calif.
Ryan Cullom
Firefighters work to put out a blaze burning homes early Tuesday in Ventura, Calif.

Updated at 10:55 p.m. ET

Multiple fires are burning in Southern California, claiming hundreds of structures and thousands of acres and closing many freeways and local roadways, according to state fire officials.

A wind-whipped wildfire swept into the coastal California city of Ventura early Tuesday, one day after thousands of people in Ventura County were forced to flee the blaze, which has now engulfed some 50,000 acres northwest of Los Angeles. It erupted weeks after firefighters in Northern California's wine country managed to contain the deadliest blazes in the state's history.

"This is already the most destructive fire year on record for the state," NPR's Nathan Rott reports.

Around 1,000 homes in the cities of Ventura, Santa Paula and Ojai have been evacuated, according to the Los Angeles Times. Mandatory as well as voluntary evacuations were in effect in Ventura on Tuesday, with shelters open at the Ventura County Fairgrounds and in nearby Ojai and Oxnard.

At least 150 structures have been lost in the blaze, said Ventura County Fire Department Chief Mark Lorenzen. The Times reports those include "at least one large apartment complex and the Vista Del Mar Hospital, a psychiatric facility. ... Many more were threatened."

The Thomas Fire broke out around 6:30 p.m. local time Monday northwest of the city of Santa Paula and then exploded in size overnight. Officials initially said at least one person had died as a result of the blaze but clarified Tuesday that no fatalities have been confirmed, according to the Times.

An incident report from Ventura County described the blaze as "a fast moving, active brush fire that started north of Santa Paula near Highway 150 and has burned into the city limits of Ventura and toward Highway 33."

Erratic, hot and dry gusts from the Santa Ana winds have helped drive the blaze and hindered the efforts of hundreds of firefighters to beat it back.

The National Weather Service says wind gusts could reach 70 mph in Los Angeles and Ventura counties through Thursday, spreading the fire and potentially toppling trees and power lines.

"Our fuel conditions out there are absolutely about as bad as they could be for fire spread," Lorenzen said Tuesday. "So we're very concerned about the wind popping up again today and pushing the fire a little but further toward the west."

Ventura residents had to get out fast Monday night with little time to contemplate what to bring and what to leave behind.

Drew Story says he was at a rehearsal for his teenage daughter's Nutcrackerballet when he learned about the fire, which was still some 20 miles away. He tells NPR that he "didn't think much of it," and went home and went to bed.

A man prepares to evacuate his home as a wildfire burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, Calif., on Tuesday.
Ringo Chiu / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
A man prepares to evacuate his home as a wildfire burns along a hillside near homes in Santa Paula, Calif., on Tuesday.

But before midnight, he says, "I walked out and saw the sky was red. The fire was coming our way and very close."

The Storys grabbed their pets and fled to the downtown ballet studio, where they spread yoga mats on the floor. On Tuesday morning, Story says, he returned home to retrieve some belongings. Their home appeared to have been spared, but the flames were close — firefighters had to extinguish a blaze in the family's backyard treehouse.

And with powerful Santa Ana winds still blowing, Story says, "we're not thinking we are out of the woods yet."

Samantha Wells-Zuniga tells The Associated Press that she was with her daughter and grandchild when she saw the fire closing in on her Ventura apartment. "I just wanted to get out of the house, so we just left basically with just the clothes on our back and the Christmas presents that we just shopped for," she says.

Lance Orozco, news director at in Thousand Oaks, said he drove the length of Ventura County to get a look at the extent of the fire.

"There's probably about a 7- or 8-mile stretch of flames that runs through the mountains behind the city and in some cases reaches down to the neighborhoods themselves," Orozco said early Tuesday.

Fire officials also were grappling with another blaze, the Creek Fire, which broke out just north of Los Angeles, that had consumed more than 11,000 acres as of Tuesday, according to fire officials.

A third blaze, the Rye Fire, in Santa Clarita, about 32 miles north of Los Angeles, has burned 5,000 acres. It caused the closure of Interstate 5 in both directions near state highway 126 for several hours.

Firefighters appear to be gaining the upper hand on smaller fires in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The latest wildfires follow a series of blazes in October that killed 44 people and destroyed nearly 9,000 homes and other structures as they tore through more than 200,000 acres in the wine country in and around Sonoma and Napa counties. They were the deadliest fires in California's history.

"We urge you, you must abide by these evacuation notices," Ventura County Sheriff Jeff Dean told reporters on Monday. "We saw the disasters and the losses that happened up north in Sonoma and this is a fast, very dangerous moving fire."

On Monday, the director of California's Office of Emergency Services, Mark Ghilarducci, told lawmakers at the state Capitol in Sacramento that the failure of privately operated communication services, such as cellphone and Internet, severely impeded rescue efforts in October.

"The government does not really have authority over [those privately run services] to ensure that that redundancy and resiliency is put in place," he said.

Those fires, according to the AP, "spread at night as many victims slept, knocking out cellphones, landlines, Internet and cable television in some areas," hindering alert services.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 4, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story misidentified San Bernardino County as San Bernadino County.
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.
Amy Held is an editor on the newscast unit. She regularly reports breaking news on air and online.