FARIA BEACH, Calif. (Reuters) – Fanned by gusting winds, wildfires raged in densely populated Southern California for a fourth day on Thursday, forcing 200,000 people to flee their homes with dangerous conditions forecast until Sunday.
The blazes have destroyed hundreds of houses and forced many Los Angeles-area schools to close. Flames hopscotched over highways and railroad tracks, and residents rushed to evacuate their homes with only minutes’ warning, some leaving behind holiday gifts. People feared for the safety of animals from cats to llamas.
Authorities said the four major fires – ranging from Los Angeles up the Pacific coast to Santa Barbara County – were whipped up by the region’s notorious westward Santa Ana winds that could reach hurricane strength.
The winds, which blow in hot and dry from the California desert, could reach 75 miles per hour (120 km per hour), authorities said.
The National Weather Service said Santa Ana winds were blowing on Thursday afternoon, and the state CAL FIRE agency said gusty winds and extremely low humidity would continue through Sunday.
“Prepare now to ensure if evacuated you and your family are ready to GO!,” CAL FIRE said on Twitter.
The fires, which broke out on Monday and Tuesday, have reached into the wealthy enclave of Bel-Air on Los Angeles’ West Side. Some major highways in the densely populated area were intermittently closed.
North of San Diego, another blaze called the Lilac Fire grew from 10 acres to 500 acres in just a few hours on Thursday, CAL FIRE said. The blaze destroyed two structures and prompted evacuations and road closures. Propane tanks under several houses exploded from the heat, sounding like bombs, according to a Reuters photographer at the scene.
Firefighters and helicopters sprayed and dumped bucketloads of water to try to contain the flames against a hellish backdrop of flaming mountains and walls of smoke.
No civilian casualties or fatalities have been reported from the blazes but three firefighters were injured, the Los Angeles Fire Department said.
About 100 firefighters fended off flames in the seaside enclave of Faria Beach, caught between burning mountains and the Pacific Ocean, northwest of Ventura.
Fires spread down the smoking hills, jumping the heavily used U.S. 101 highway, and headed toward clusters of beach houses. Firefighters lined up along a railroad track, the last barrier from the flames.
Surrounded by strong winds and smoke, Songsri Kesonchampa …