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Southern California Fires Surpass 115,000 Acres As Santa Ana Winds Drive Flames

Firefighters monitor a section of the Thomas Fire along the 101 freeway north of Ventura, California on Thursday.

Driven by fierce Santa Ana winds, four intense fires near Los Angeles grew to engulf more than 115,000 acres Thursday, and officials say residents should be prepared for even more strong winds through Friday.

Forecasters are predicting wind gusts of up to 80 mph, saying that this week will bring the strongest of the seasonal Santa Ana winds. Those speeds would likely ground helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that can drop water on the blazes.

"The forecast for [Thursday] is purple," Ken Pimlott, director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said last night, referring to the only color above red on the wind scale. "We've never used purple before."

On the severity scale used by California emergency officials, both red and purple signal a high likelihood of fast-moving, intense fires. But purple adds a key distinction: fires created in those conditions "will be uncontrollable" rather than merely difficult to control, as under code red conditions.

More than 4,500 firefighters have been working to control the fires. But the largest blaze, the Thomas Fire, has exploded to 96,000 acres since it was started earlier this week. Containment of that fire is now at five percent.

On Thursday morning, the intense heat of the Thomas fire was seen generating a pyrocumulus or flammagenitus cloud — the towering mushroom clouds that sometimes result from volcanic eruptions and other extreme activities.

And as of now at least, an end to the threat is a long way away. The National Weather Service office in Los Angeles and Oxnard says it expects critical fire weather conditions to linger into Saturday, with strong winds paired with extremely low humidity.

As The Associated Press notes, "The wilder winds could easily make new fires explode too, as one did Wednesday in Los Angeles' exclusive Bel-Air section, where a fire consumed multimillion-dollar houses that give the rich and famous sweeping views of Los Angeles."

The fires have produced vivid and shocking images of massive walls of flame. But on Wednesday night, a much smaller scene of peril played out, when a man was seen getting out of his car to rescue a rabbit that was near perilous flames on Highway 1 in La Conchita. In a dramatic sequence captured by RMG News, the rabbit ran away from the man — and toward the flames — before he managed to corral it. He declined to be interviewed afterwards.

Mary Plummer, a reporter with member station KPCC in Pasadena, tells Morning Edition that "these fires are affecting a real range of geographic areas — some very urban, some very rural. So, it's a real logistical problem."

Making the situation more dangerous for anyone trying to get out of affected areas, the fires have forced closures on arterial roads. In addition to the shutdown of a stretch of the 101 on Thursday, a portion of the 405 freeway was closed in both directions for a time on Wednesday.

Cal Fire estimates that hundreds of structures, including 200 homes, have been destroyed, and that as many as 200,000 people are under evacuation orders. Some 12,000 structures are considered in danger.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Los Angeles and Ventura counties, which will free up state resources.

Remarkably, so far no deaths have been reported as a direct result of the fires. But many people have been evacuated, and many have already lost homes and other property.

Patricia Hampton, a homeless woman who lost her tent, found shelter at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, which is serving as an evacuation center.

"It was surreal," she tells member station KPCC. "The entire town was pitch black. I looked to the left and the hillside was on fire; I looked to my right and it was just coming over the ridge, huge flames."

Member station KCLU says that firefighters have made progress, raising containment of the Thomas Fire, the largest of several, from zero to 5 percent. As of Thursday morning, the fire had grown to 96,000 acres.

However, Ventura County Fire Captain Tony McHale said it was still a long way from under control.

"There's enough fire around; there's dry fuel; the humidity is still low. We're still very much in danger. So we can't let our guard down at all," McHale said.

The Thomas Fire has burned a 10-mile path from Santa Paula to the Pacific Ocean, jumping U.S. Highway 101 along the way.

The Los Angeles Times reports that "As flames raged toward neighborhoods in Ojai, Carpenteria and Fillmore late Wednesday, officials issued new evacuation orders in Ojai Valley, notifying residents with an emergency cellphone alert. Authorities said they were helping residents of five assisted-living facilities evacuate, while people at Ojai Hospital were advised to shelter in place."

Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) adds: "Areas northeast of Ojai have seen the most fire growth since Wednesday morning, officials told reporters. Authorities say they are conducting damage assessments in the area to determine how many homes have been damaged."

In Los Angeles County, the Creek Fire, affecting 12,605 acres, is just 5 percent contained and the Rye Fire, of 7,000 acres, is 15 percent contained. The much smaller Skirball Fire was considered 5 percent contained and has prompted the evacuation of about 700 homes, one apartment building and an elementary school, according to SCPR.

The Bel-Air fire prompted UCLA to cancel classes after noon on Wednesday; all classes are also canceled for Thursday, the Daily Bruin reports.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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