Hot, dry Santa Ana winds are expected to fan several relentless
wildfires in southern California, where hundreds of houses have burned
and tens of thousands have fled their homes around Los Angeles, the
second-largest US city.
The winds, which blow westward from the California desert, were forecast to reach 130kph.
That could stoke several blazes burning in the Los Angeles area that have already caused, according to local media, about 200,000 people to evacuate.
“Strong winds over night creating extreme fire danger,” said an alert sent by the countrywide emergency system in Los Angeles.
Video and photographs on social media showed flame-covered hillsides along busy roadways as commuters slowly made their way to work or home, rows of houses reduced to ash and firefighters spraying water on walls of fire as they tried to save houses.
“We are in the beginning of a protracted wind event,” Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told the Los Angeles Times. “There will be no ability to fight fire in these kinds of winds.”
In the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the Creek Fire destroyed at least 30 homes, blackened more than 12,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 2,500 homes and a convalescent centre.
Another fire, known as the Rye Fire, threatened more than 5,000 homes and structures northwest of Los Angeles.
The Skirball Fire, which erupted early on Wednesday had burned about 500 acres near large estates in the Bel-Air neighbourhood of Los Angeles, was only 5% contained.
Firefighters battled to save multimillion-dollar homes in the path of the flames.
“These are days that break your heart,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said during a news conference. “These are also days that show the resilience of our city.”
No civilian casualties or fatalities have been reported. Three firefighters were injured and hospitalised in stable condition, the Los Angeles Fire Department said. Dozens of schools across the area cancelled classes yesterday.
The largest blaze, the Thomas Fire, burned more than 90,000 acres after it destroyed more than 150 homes and threatened thousands more in Ventura, about 80km northwest of Los Angeles.
Additional evacuations were called for late on Wednesday in the Ventura area, where 50,000 people had already fled their homes over the last three days.
“The danger is imminent,” Cal Fire said in its evacuation notice.
The Santa Ana gales have come at the worst time, at the end of a long dry spell.
The combination of savage Santa Anas and tinder-dry plants have ignited large wildfires in the region this week, upending lives at a time when many people were preparing for the winter holidays, officials said.
It served as a reminder that parts of California increasingly face a year-round threat of flames.
“There is no fire season anymore,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spokesman Scott McLain, adding that this was particularly true in Southern California.
The Santa Anas, winds that rush through California’s coastal mountains, foothills and canyons from deserts to the east, will blow hard again today, said National Weather Service meteorologist Carol Smith. Gusts of up to 97kph are forecast.
The Santa Anas typically begin in late September and it is not unusual for them to peak in December or January, officials said. This year, however, the winds follow months of low rainfall.
Since October 1, Los Angeles has received 0.11 inches (0.3cm) of rain, Smith said, compared to normal precipitation of more than 2 inches (5cm) over the same period.
Southern California’s dry spell this fall followed heavy rain that soaked the region a year ago, which itself came on the heels of five years of drought.
“Absolutely climate change is affecting precipitation — that’s why we are seeing record drought followed by record rainfall,” Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Water Resources said in an e-mail.
In wetter years, rainfall has given trees and plants enough moisture to withstand flames, said Tom Rolinski, senior meteorologist with the US Forest Service.
Southern California in the past often saw the fire season end around November, Rolinski said. To that end, large fires in December have been rare in California for more than a decade, according to Cal Fire records.
The last time Southern California saw a blaze in December that burned thousands of acres was in 2006, the records show.
That year, the Shekell fire in Ventura County charred 13,600 acres and damaged or destroyed 18 structures.
Even though flames came late this year, people in the city of Ventura evacuated quickly, said local City Councilman Erik Nasarenko, who was among those forced to flee.
Residents were starkly aware of fires in Northern California that killed more than 40 people in October, Nasarenko said by phone. Those October blazes were the deadliest rash of wildfires in California history.
“The consciousness of the residents of Ventura was raised,” Nasarenko said.
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