Winds whip California fires as they spread south

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SAN DIEGO: Unrelenting winds fanned towering flames Friday in southern California, where hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee multiple devastating fires in the Los Angeles area and new outbreaks near San Diego.

Hundreds of structures including multi-million dollar mansions have been destroyed as thousands of firefighters battle wind-fueled wildfires on six different fronts.

Black smoke billowed through the region, gagging residents who ventured outdoors.

Since erupting in Ventura county late Monday, the so-called Thomas fire has ravaged 132,000 acres, an area nearly triple the size of Washington DC.

With gusts of up to 60 miles per hour, the turbulent Santa Ana winds whipped the fire on Friday, spitting embers and creating “extreme fire danger.”

Despite the fires’ intensity, authorities have reported only one fatality so far, an unidentified person whose body found overnight, according to Tim Lohman of the Ventura County Sheriff´s Office.

Further south in San Diego county the “Lilac” fire was ballooning at a dangerous rate, charring more than 4,000 acres after igniting Thursday morning and triggering a new wave of evacuations as it encroached on the university town of Santa Barbara.

Racehorses and celebrities

The plumes of smoke and flame left at least four people in the area injured from burns or smoke inhalation.

Flames also claimed the lives of more than two dozen racehorses after tearing through eight barns at the normally serene San Luis Rey training center, where some 500 horses were stabled, the California Horse Racing Board said in a statement.

Firefighters, meanwhile, got something of a handle on the Skirball fire, which had spewed rivers of flames over 500 acres in the densely populated area of Bel Air, producing apocalyptic scenes as the inferno engulfed entire hillsides.

Multi-million dollar mansions were destroyed in Bel Air, home to many celebrities. Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch has a $30 million estate, the Moraga Bel Air Winery, there.

Another Los Angeles county blaze, the Rye fire, has consumed more than 6,000 acres and was 35 percent contained, while the Creek fire – the largest wildfire menacing the LA region – had grown to more than 15,000 acres and devastated some 60 structures, half of them homes.

The Liberty wildfire in Riverside county east of Los Angeles, America´s second largest city, has scorched 300 acres and was just five percent contained.

State of emergency

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Thursday that portions of the evacuation zone would soon re-open, but tens of thousands residents in the metropolitan area remain under mandatory evacuation orders.

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) resumed operations at its sprawling campus Friday east of the blaze, as did the acclaimed Getty Center art museum.

California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state emergency for Santa Barbara, San Diego, Los Angeles and Ventura counties, while US President Donald Trump issued a state of emergency in California, authorizing the release of federal funds to “help alleviate the hardship and suffering that the emergency may inflict on the local population.”

The Pentagon announced that the California National Guard is deploying 65 troops to assist in the firefighting efforts, which are being hampered by the seasonal Santa Ana winds.

‘Epic’ winds

Forecasts showed that intense gusts – which authorities described Thursday as “epic,” sometimes clocking in at more than 80 miles per hour – ebbed somewhat overnight but were expected to kick up again later Friday.

California Fire Department (Cal Fire) officials warned residents to be ready to leave at a moment´s notice.

“Extremely dry conditions and Santa Ana Winds will continue to elevate fire danger,” Cal Fire said in a tweet. “Prepare now to ensure if evacuated you and your family are ready to GO!”

This has been California’s deadliest year ever for wildfires. More than 40 people died in October when fires swept through the state´s wine-producing counties north of San Francisco.

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