Southern California firefighters race against time, winds in wildfire battle

LOS ANGELES — Firefighters in Southern California raced Wednesday to draw containment lines around a series of blazes that have ravaged scores of homes and businesses and forced tens of thousands of people to quickly grab what they could and retreat from their homes.

Battling the fires has been a fight against the wind and extremely parched conditions. A new fire popped up Wednesday morning, threatening Los Angeles’ Bel-Air area and, for a while, causing authorities to shut down a major north-south freeway.

A break in the feisty winds helped a little and by afternoon the 475-acre Skirball Fire was 5% contained, Los Angeles Fire Department Deputy Chief Chuck Butler said. Crews were working feverishly to get more of the blaze under control before the winds whip back up Wednesday night.

“The forward movement of the fire has been stopped at this time,” Butler said at an afternoon news conference. “When the winds come up (later in the day) … they will want to push that fire across the 405 freeway. That’s why it’s critically important that we get some containment on this tonight.”

Evacuations in some of the area’s most affluent neighborhoods near the Skirball Fire affected 46,000 people, officials said.

Earlier, 9 miles of Interstate 405 — one of the nation’s busiest freeways — were shut down after flames swept down the foothills before dawn as stunned motorists watched.

“It was dark until I saw a gigantic ball of orange,” I-405 motorist Tiffany Lynette Anderson wrote on Instagram, where she posted a picture of fire raging beside the highway before it was closed. “On absolute fire. I’m grateful to be safe — truly grateful.”

“I could feel the heat on my windows,” said Los Angeleno Joy Newcomb, who also drove by the fire.

The fire was on the other side of the highway from both the Skirball museum and the Getty museum, where the art was staying put.

Heavy Santa Ana winds blamed for spreading the infernos still threaten to multiply the destruction. The winds are expected to pick up Wednesday and Thursday, perhaps with gusts of 70 mph, posing a risk of further fire spread.

 

Los Angeles authorities ordered parts of the Bel-Air district near the fire to leave, but those are just a fraction of the evacuations that have been ordered in Southern California since Monday night.

The wildfires are burning dry vegetation along the northern and western edges of Los Angeles, and, more extensively, Ventura County, northwest of the city, for a third day.

Smoke collected even in areas that weren’t burning. Health officials warned people in the heavily populated San Fernando Valley and other parts of the northern Los Angeles area to limit their time outdoors.

A video posted to Instagram shows a Los Angeles County Fire helicopter maneuvering around heavy smoke to make a water drop on the Skirball Fire.

The smoke from the fires could be seen from the International Space Station. Astronaut Randy Bresnik wrote in one tweet: “I was asked this evening if we can see the SoCal fires from space. Yes Faith, unfortunately we can. May the Santa Ana’s die down soon. #Californiawildfire.” In another post he thanked the thousands of people fighting the fires.

The Thomas Fire spanned 65,000 acres (about 101 square miles) in Ventura County, which sits just north and west of Los Angeles.

Officials there said they couldn’t give a precise number of homes destroyed, because flames in burned neighborhoods still were too intense for examination. But they had estimated about 150 buildings early Tuesday.

On Wednesday, a line of fire was scorching hills toward the Pacific coast.

Airborne embers were irritating firefighters’ eyes, said Rich Macklin, a Ventura County fire spokesman.

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared an emergency for Ventura County, freeing state resources such as the National Guard to support response efforts.