'Out-of-control' fire torches Southern California, forcing thousands to evacuate

A man waters his home as firefighters battle a wildfire near homes in Santa Paula, California.
A man waters his home as firefighters battle a wildfire near homes in Santa Paula, California.PHOTO: AFP

CALIFORNIA (NYTIMES) - A brush fire roared into Southern California on Monday (Dec 4) evening, spreading overnight to 12,500ha, destroying at least 150 structures, many of them homes, and forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate, the authorities said.

The fire began north of Santa Paula, California, and burned its way into the city of Ventura, according to an incident report posted by the Ventura County Sheriff's Office.

No fatalities had been confirmed on Tuesday morning, according to Eric Buschow, a sergeant with the sheriff's office.

At least one injury had been reported, and one hospital, Vista Del Mar, a behavioural health facility, had been evacuated. Soon after, the hospital was "razed to the ground" by the fire, according to a local news report.

The blaze has grown with astonishing speed. The sheriff's office received its first reports at 6.24pm on Monday local time.

By midnight, the fire was estimated to have reached 4047ha.

Already, 27,000 people have been evacuated, and the dry conditions and high winds forecast through at least Thursday are expected to significantly expand the affected area.

Conditions are "not going to get any better anytime soon, and the fire is out of control", Buschow said.

It was possible that some people had been trapped in their homes, he said, but sheriff's office personnel had gone to certain neighborhoods to ensure that residents were leaving.

At 3am, as the fire reached 10,500ha, the Ventura County Fire Department posted a picture of the flames resembling a volcanic eruption, with a wall of fire looming over palm trees.

California has been hit hard this fire season.

In October, even as more than a dozen fires broke out in the northern part of the state, a separate blaze quickly grew in the Anaheim Hills, burning through thousands of hectares.

A month earlier, wildfires in the Verdugo Mountains sent smoke billowing into the air above Los Angeles as the hills glowed red.

But Buschow said that Monday's fire, named the Thomas Fire and fueled by the Santa Ana winds, was one of the worst he had seen, partly because of the number of homes that were affected.

Frequently, he said, those strong winds push fires toward the ocean, burning through less-inhabited canyons and their dense brush along the way. Fires like those, he said, do not typically affect as many neighbourhoods as Monday's fire did.

Firefighters were contending with an enormous challenge, Buschow said, as power outages in the area were affecting their ability to battle the flames. At least 186,000 people were without power in Ventura County on Tuesday, many of them in the area impacted by the blaze.