A dangerous new wildfire has erupted in the upmarket Bel Air area of Los Angeles as firefighters battled three other destructive blazes across southern California.
Flames exploded before dawn on Wednesday on the steep slopes of the east side of Sepulveda Pass, which carries the busy Interstate 405 freeway through the Santa Monica mountains where ridge tops are covered with expensive homes. At least two could be seen burning.
The fires have been whipped up by fierce Santa Ana winds that have long contributed to some of the region’s most disastrous wildfires. They blow from the inland toward the Pacific Ocean, speeding up as they squeeze through mountain passes and canyons.
California’s top firefighter said later on Wednesday that the state was in for the worst Santa Ana wind conditions it has ever seen. Tuesday saw gusts of over 50 mph (80kmh).
Ken Pimlott, director of the state’s department of forestry and fire protection, said the wind wildfire threat to southern California for Thursday was purple. The level has never been used before, meaning there was extreme danger and that fires could burn uncontrollably. Below that is red, meaning high danger of fires that burn rapidly and intensely and are difficult to control.
Hundreds of firefighters battled flames on the ground on Wednesday as aircraft dropped water and retardant near neighborhoods on the east side of the pass. Nearly 200 homes have been destroyed by the fires which remain out of control. Almost 200,000 people have been told to evacuate.
When firefighters told Maurice Kaboud to evacuate his home in Bel Air he decided to stay and protect his home. The 59-year-old stood in the backyard of his multimillion-dollar home as fires raged nearby.
“God willing, this will slow down so the firefighters can do their job,” Kaboud said.
Hundreds of homes burned in the area during the famous Bel Air Fire of 1961. The Getty Center art complex, on the west side of the pass, employs extensive fire protection methods. Its website says it was closed to protect its collection from smoke.
The largest and most destructive of the fires, a 101 sq mile (262 sq km) wildfire in Ventura County north-west of Los Angeles, had nearly reached the Pacific on Tuesday night after starting 30 miles inland a day earlier.
The fire had destroyed at least 150 structures, but incident commander Todd Derum said he suspects hundreds more homes have already been lost. Firefighters have been unable to assess them.
Lisa Kermode and her children returned to their home on Tuesday to find their home in ashes, including a Christmas tree and the presents they had just bought.
“We got knots in our stomach coming back up here,” Kermode said. “We lost everything, everything, all our clothes, anything that was important to us. All our family heirlooms – it’s not sort of gone, it’s completely gone.”
John Keasler, 65, and his wife, Linda, raced out of their apartment building as the flames approached, then stood and watched the fire burn it to the ground.
“It is sad,” Keasler said. “We loved this place. We lost everything.”
Linda Keasler said they were just glad to be alive despite losing so much.
“Those things we can always get back,” she said. “The truth is it is just things and thank God no one died.”
Some 12,000 structures were under threat.
A spokesman for the American Red Cross expected a shelter in Ventura County to be at capacity on Tuesday night. Fred Mariscal said the shelter was serving meals, providing a mobile shower truck and had doctors and nurses on hand.
While the blazes brought echoes of the firestorm in northern California that killed 44 people two months ago, no deaths and only a handful of injuries had been reported.
In the foothills of northern Los Angeles, 30 structures burned. Mayor Eric Garcetti said the gusty winds expected to last most of the week had created a dangerous situation and he urged 150,000 people under mandatory evacuation orders to leave their homes before it was too late.
“We have lost structures, we have not lost lives,” he said. “Do not wait. Leave your homes.”
Fires are not typical in southern California at this time of year but can break out when dry vegetation and too little rain combine with the Santa Ana winds. Hardly any measurable rain has fallen in the region over the past six months.
Fires in suburban settings like these are likely to become more frequent as climate change makes fire season a year-round threat and will put greater pressure on local budgets, said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College who has written extensively about wildfires.
“There are going to be far greater numbers that are going to be evacuated, as we’re seeing now,” Miller said. “These fires are not just fast and furious, but they’re really expensive to fight.”
Source: The Guardian