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Natural disasters

Winds whip up California fires as they spread south

Forecasters predicted weather would continue to make conditions challenging, as the fast-moving blazes move along the Pacific Coast

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 December, 2017, 7:42am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 December, 2017, 10:24pm

Thousands of firefighters battled raging bushfires in California on Saturday that have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee the Los Angeles area, as well as outbreaks closer to San Diego.

Nearly 700 structures including multimillion dollar mansions have been destroyed by fires raging on six different fronts, but despite the intensity of the blazes, authorities have reported only one fatality.

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

“I’ve never seen anything like this and I’ve lived here 20 years,” said Judy Herman, 76.

Herman was relieved to find her home in Murrieta, east of Los Angeles, still intact. It was part of the huge evacuation zone forced by the “Liberty” fire – which included many ranches in the area, where rodeos are popular.

Meanwhile, since erupting in Ventura county late on Monday, the so-called Thomas fire has ravaged 58,000 hectares.

With gusts of up to 96km/h, the turbulent seasonal Santa Ana winds whipped the fire on Friday, spitting embers and creating “extreme fire danger”. A red alert was extended into the weekend due to expected low humidity.

Further south in San Diego county the “Lilac” fire was ballooning at a dangerous rate, charring more than 1,600 hectares after igniting Thursday morning and triggering a new wave of evacuations as it encroached on the university town of Santa Barbara.

The plumes of smoke and flames 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 centre, in the town of Bonsall, where some 500 horses were stabled, the California Horse Racing Board said in a statement.

“Seventy-five per cent of the stables were consumed, the fire was spreading so fast … they couldn’t evacuate all the horses,” fire chief Ross Fowler said. “It’s hard when horses are scared, they don’t comply, they are heavy, they can hurt you.”

In Fallbrook, northern San Diego county, the scene was apocalyptic. With ravaged trees lying horizontal and houses destroyed, everything was black as firefighters looked for possible sources for a new blaze.

Taking advantage of a lull in the wind, they also blasted water on homes affected in both towns.

Meanwhile, firefighters also got something of a handle on the “Skirball” fire in Los Angeles, which had spewed rivers of flames over 200 hectares in the densely populated area of Bel Air, engulfing entire hillsides.

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

Another Los Angeles county blaze, the “Rye” fire, has consumed more than 2,400 hectares and was 50 per cent contained, while the “Creek” fire – the largest fire menacing the LA region – had grown to more than 6,000 hectares and destroyed more than 100 structures, over half of them residential.

The “Liberty” fire in Riverside county east of Los Angeles, America’s second largest city, has scorched 120 hectares and was just 10 per cent contained.

US President Donald Trump issued a state of emergency in California, authorising the release of federal funds to “help alleviate the hardship and suffering that the emergency may inflict on the local population”.

However, several evacuation orders were lifted on Friday afternoon.

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