Southern California Wildfires Force Thousands to Flee in Ventura, Kagel Canyon; State of Emergency Declared

Jonathan Erdman
Published: December 5, 2017

Fueled by fierce Santa Ana winds, fast-spreading wildfires in Southern California consumed dozens of square miles, destroyed 150 structures and forced thousands to flee their homes Tuesday morning.

Officials ordered thousands to get out of Ventura, California, overnight Monday as the so-called Thomas fire grew out of control. Homes were burned and hundreds of firefighters battled the aggressive conflagration. Crews were forced to wait until daybreak to start fighting the fire through the air with the help of planes and helicopters.

The evacuation area was expanded to include more than 150,000 people on Tuesday. Officials supsect hundreds more homes have been lost beyond the 150 already reported to be destroyed by the fire in Ventura County.

"The fire growth is just absolutely exponential," Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen told the Associated Press. "All that firefighters can do when we have winds like this is get out ahead, evacuate people and protect structures."

Hours later, another fire was reported Tuesday morning in the Kagel Canyon area, east of Ventura and north of Los Angeles. Named the Creek fire, it quickly burned 11,000 acres and threatened homes, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in response to the fires.

(MORE: Why California's Wildfires Are Worse in the Fall)

Thousands Flee as Inferno Invades Ventura

The Thomas fire was first reported in the mountains just north of Santa Paula, California, around 6:30 p.m. Monday, about 50 miles west-northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

The wildfire quickly grew to 78 square miles in less than 18 hours, prompting evacuations in the cities of Santa Paula and Ventura. Evacuation shelters were set up at Nordhoff High School in Ojai and at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

Officials initially said one person was killed in a vehicle crash on a road closed by the wildfire, but authorities later said the report was inaccurate, and only a dog was found dead in the car.

This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly, but we'll continue to attack it with all we've got,” Brown said in a press release. “It's critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so.”

Mandatory evacuation orders were expanded to include more than 7,700 homes early Tuesday morning, KABC-TV reported.

The fire had 0 percent perimeter containment, according to the Ventura County Fire Department.

An early-morning view of the Thomas fire in Ventura County, California, on Dec. 5, 2017.
(Ventura County Fire Department)

"It's pretty bad. Hasn't been like this. Maybe 15 years is the last time it happened, and that time it burned maybe to the back of the yards – everywhere," Santa Paula resident Gilbert Acevedo told KABC.

There was one report of 50 homes burning in one part of the city of Ventura, according to the L.A. Times. Local media also said the Vista del Mar behavioral healthcare facility was destroyed, but all patients were safely evacuated.

"The prospects for containment are not good," said Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen at an early Tuesday morning briefing. "Really, Mother Nature is going to decide."

(MORE: Little Relief in Sight as California's Rainy Season Starts Dry)

About 1,000 firefighters were on the scene, and more were on the way. The Ventura County Fire Department said one firefighter was injured battling the blaze; the L.A. Times said he was hit by a car while protecting homes.

Santa Ana winds up to 50 mph were fanning the flames, pushing the fire's perimeter rapidly toward the west-southwest, toward the Ventura County coast. Spot fires were reported ahead of the main fire perimeter.

The National Weather Service warned Monday afternoon these strong Santa Ana winds, combined with very low humidity, provided an ideal setup for "very rapid fire growth." The strongest and longest-duration Santa Ana winds of the season, so far, were expected to continue through Thursday.

At least 263,000 customers were without power when the fire affected Southern California Edison transmission lines in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, from the cities of Santa Barbara to Oxnard. Most of those outages were restored later Tuesday morning, the company said.

The cause of the fire is unknown.

Ventura is some 60 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The city is home to about 110,000 people.

Creek Fire Burns in Kagel Canyon

Tuesday morning, officials announced a second fire was moving quickly and burning dozens of acres in Southern California. Firefighters responded to the scene of the so-called Creek fire in Kagel Canyon near Sylmar, according to the L.A. Times.

The blaze has burned 17 square miles since it was first reported around 4 a.m. in the hills near homes off Little Tujunga Canyon Road Tuesday, KABC-TV reports. Officials evacuated 2,500 homes and the 210 Freeway was shut down.

Helicopters were deployed Tuesday morning to fight the fire, the report added. The cause of the fire wasn't immediately known.

Rye Fire Grows Quickly in Santa Clarita

A third wildfire was reported later Tuesday morning in the Santa Clarita area, and burned 5,000 acres and shut down a freeway. 

First reported at 9:30 a.m. PST Tuesday morning, the so-called Rye fire was five percent contained as of 3:15 p.m. local time, according to KABC. The blaze forced officials to shut down both directions of Interstate 5 at State Route 126, the report added. The roadway has since been reopened. 

Evacuation orders were underway for those in the Westridge community and residents along Rye Canyon Loop, KABC also said. A power outage has been reported as a result of the fire and the sheriff's office phone system was down due to an influx of calls about the outages.  

Santa Clarita is located about 35 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

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