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Firefighters battled blazes around Ventura County, California. Photo: EPA

With hundreds of homes destroyed, California Governor Jerry Brown says fire devastation is the ‘new normal’

More than 790 structures have been razed to the ground since blazes broke out across parts of the state

Brutal winds that fuelled southern California fires finally began to ease on Saturday, giving residents and firefighters hope for a respite as the destructive toll of the blazes came into focus.

However, a red alert was extended into Sunday due to expected low humidity.

After a five-day siege, some Californians were finally able to return home to inspect the damage wrought by the wildfires, which forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee and destroyed more than 850 structures including multimillion dollar mansions.

Despite the intensity of the fires that raged on several different fronts – stretching from areas north of Los Angeles down to the San Diego region – authorities have reported only one fatality.

With gusts of up to 95km/h, relentless seasonal winds had continued to stoke the fires on Friday, spitting embers and creating “extreme fire danger”.

A firefighter looks out towards the Thomas Fire, a massive fire during north of Ojai, California. Photo: Reuters

“There’s still tons and tons of hotspots out there,” Captain Jon Heggie of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said early on Saturday.

A “red flag” warning issued by the National Weather Service was expected to last until Sunday night.

The strongest winds were expected in the San Diego County mountains and foothills, with gusts over 60 miles per hour, the NWS predicted.

Despite the easing of the winds, meteorologists warned that smoke and ash could linger, prompting several counties to maintain air-quality warnings.

Firefighters attack the Thomas Fire’s north flank near Ojai, California. Photo: Reuters

In the mountain town of Ojai the air-quality index was hovering over 500 – at the top of the “hazardous” scale – as fumes from the “Thomas” fire were trapped by the mountains.

Since erupting in Ventura County on Monday, that blaze has seared 60,000 hectares and destroyed over 500 structures, but a fire service spokesperson said containment should improve “after aggressive fire fighting” the day before.

Governor Jerry Brown said some scientists believe more extreme fire seasons are part of climate change.

“This is kind of the new normal. We’re facing a new reality in this state where fires threatens people’s lives, their property, their neighbourhoods,” Brown said at a briefing.

“We know from changing climate that (fires) are going to exacerbate everything else (and) in the longer term, I think we have to think through how are we going to adjust ourselves to nature as it changes,” Brown said, his approach a stark contrast to that of US president Donald Trump, a doubter of climate change.

“We can’t expect nature to adjust to our needs,” Brown added.

The material cost of fire suppression efforts has skyrocketed to some US$17 million, Ventura officials estimated.

The week’s infernos capped California’s deadliest year ever for wildfires. More than 40 people died in October when fires swept through the state’s wine-producing counties north of San Francisco.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Governor calls fire devastation the ‘new normal’