For the second time in two months, wind-driven fires are tearing through California communities. So far, rows of homes and a psychiatric hospital lie in ruins and tens of thousands of people have fled for their lives.
Officials reported at least one death in a car accident as blazes burned on Tuesday across 200 square kilometers (80 square miles) in counties abutting Los Angeles. Like fires that killed 44 people and destroyed 8,900 structures in Napa and Sonoma counties in October, the current blazes have broken out in areas more suburban than rural.
Fanned by winds that have topped 100 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour), grounding aircraft and complicating the efforts of more than 1,000 firefighters, the Thomas Fire has grown wildly since beginning in Ventura County on Monday. "It was just exponential, huge growth because the winds, 50-mile-an-hour (80 kph) out of the east, were just pushing it and growing it very, very large, very quickly," said Mark Lorenzen, the county's fire chief.
A smaller fire has burned on the northern edge of Los Angeles, threatening the Sylmar and Lakeview Terrace neighborhoods and billowing smoke that has created a breathing hazard for millions. Officials have yet to release immediate damage estimates, though residents evacuated about 2,500 homes.
'All we've got'
The Ventura County fire erupted 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Los Angeles, near Santa Paula, where 30,000 people live among citrus and avocado orchards and farm fields lining the Santa Clara River. More than 27,000 people have evacuated, and one firefighter suffered bumps and bruises in a vehicle accident in Ventura County.
Aerial footage shows dozens of homes in one neighborhood burned to the ground and a large subdivision in jeopardy as the flames spit out embers that could spark new blazes. Mansions and apartments alike have burned up. The Vista del Mar Hospital, which specializes in mental health and behavioral therapy, smoldered after burning overnight.
"This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly, but we'll continue to attack it with all we've got," California Governor Jerry Brown said.
Wildfires are a consistent danger for Californians, and insurers have paid out $3.3 billion (€2.8 billion) in claims so far this year. The threat decreases as winter approaches, but blazes erupt when drought combines with the Santa Anas — winds that carry dry air from the deserts to the coast and in 2016 helped contribute to the threat of "firenadoes." Hardly any measurable rain has fallen in the region in the past six months.
"It's been a five, six-year drought so the fuel is just tinder dry and just as ripe as can be for fire spread," Chief Lorenzen said on Tuesday.
mkg/se (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)