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Rupert Murdoch’s mansion among homes threatened by California fires as ‘extreme’ winds fan flames

Authorities issued a purple wind alert late on Wednesday, which has never been used before

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 December, 2017, 9:07am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 December, 2017, 8:51pm

California emergency officials warned of unprecedented powerful winds on Thursday that were expected to feed fires raging across Los Angeles, threatening multimillion dollar mansions with blazes that have already forced more than 200,000 people to flee.

Authorities issued a “purple” alert because of the extreme danger, warning that winds could reach 128km/h, severely limiting firefighting efforts. Southern California has felt yellow wind, orange wind, and red wind. But never purple wind.

Red means “high” and purple means “extreme”.

“The forecast for tomorrow is purple,” said Ken Pimlott, director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “We’ve never used purple before.”

“As expected winds have increased dramatically,” Cal Fire, the agency responsible for fire protection in the state, said on Twitter. “Stay alert and prepared in case of evacuations. If you feel unsafe, evacuate.”

Flames swallowed about 32,000 hectares in the space of a day, after the “Thomas” fire – the state’s largest – broke out, leaving at least one person dead in an area about 45 minutes’ drive from downtown LA. The high winds also caused another wave of wildfires to erupt on Tuesday night, including one in Los Angeles’ affluent Bel-Air neighbourhood.

The area battled gridlocked traffic as residents fled ash and smoke that churned over the smouldering hillside in the second-largest US city. Fire crews worked to save luxury homes threatened by the flames.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said more than 230,000 people had been forced from their homes in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

“Very strong winds” blowing from the northeast to the southwest were causing the fire to balloon, he said, warning Angelenos to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice.

In Bel-Air, that is exactly what they did. The “Skirball” fire ignited on Wednesday morning and quickly grew to engulf about 150 acres around the district, home to celebrities and billionaires including SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and pop superstar Beyoncé.

Police knocked on doors and used loudspeakers to make sure everybody had left their mansions.

Among the last to go was Evan Kleib, a bearded photographer, locking his door. He put his camera and his dogs in his vintage burgundy car and left the home where he has lived for several years, its fate uncertain.

US media reported that the Bel-Air Moraga Estate of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, which contains a vineyard, was threatened by the fire.

Singer Lionel Richie cancelled a concert to help his ex-wife flee the area, while comedian Chelsea Handler and designer Adrienne Maloof were among celebrities tweeting that they had to evacuate.

Among those evacuated was model Chrissy Teigen, wife of singer John Legend.

“Never thought I’d get to actually play what I thought was a hypothetical game of what would you grab if there were a fire,” Teigen wrote on Twitter.

“We are fine and we will be fine. thinking of everyone else affected and continuing my lifelong intense love of firefighters,” she added.

Watch: crews fight to save Bel-Air homes from fire

Forecasters predicted that winds could cause fires to spread further, threatening more upscale homes and the acclaimed Getty Centre museum, which is home to masterpieces including works by Edouard Manet.

Museum authorities tweeted that “air filtration systems are protecting the galleries from smoke”.

The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Santa Monica College and dozens of other schools were evacuated or closed.

Just north in Ventura County the “Thomas” blaze continued out of control, after erupting in the hills of oak and scrub north of Santa Paula, powered by strong seasonal guests known as Santa Ana winds.

In the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the Creek Fire destroyed at least 30 homes, blackened more than 11,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 2,500 homes and a convalescent centre north of Interstate 210 on Tuesday.

With at least 4,000 firefighters were deployed across the entire fire zone, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over the total area on Tuesday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said it had released funds for relief services.

US President Donald Trump tweeted a message of “thoughts and prayers” to California as it nears the end of its deadliest year ever for wildfires.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press