Winds whip up California fires, prompting evacuations
Ventura, Calif. — For second time in two months, wind-driven fires tore through California communities in the middle of the night, leaving rows of homes and a psychiatric hospital in ruins Tuesday and sending tens of thousands of people fleeing for their lives.
There were no immediate reports of any deaths or serious injuries in the blazes burning in Southern California’s Ventura County, on the edge of Los Angeles and in inland San Bernardino County.
The Ventura County wildfire broke out Monday and grew wildly to nearly 80 square miles in a matter of hours. It was fanned by dry Santa Ana winds clocked at well over 60 mph that grounded firefighting helicopters and planes.
Lisa Kermode ignored the first evacuation alert that buzzed on her phone when it said the fire was 15 miles way. But the flames were nearly on top of her an hour later when she rounded up her three children, still in their pajamas, and told them to grab some jeans.
They returned Tuesday to find the home in ashes, including a Christmas tree and the presents they had just bought.
“We got knots in our stomach coming back up here,” Kermode said. “We lost everything, everything, all our clothes, anything that was important to us. All our family heirlooms — it’s not sort of gone, it’s completely gone.”
A smaller fire erupted on the northern edge of Los Angeles, threatening the Sylmar and Lakeview Terrace neighborhoods, where residents scrambled to get out as heavy smoke billowed over the city, creating a health hazard for millions of people.
Just eight weeks ago, wildfires that broke out in Northern California and its wine country killed 44 people and destroyed 8,900 homes and other buildings.
Fires aren’t typical in Southern California this time of year but can break out when dry vegetation and too little rain combine with the Santa Ana winds. Los Angeles has gotten hardly any measurable rain in two months.
Like the deadly October fires in Napa and Sonoma counties, the blazes are in areas more suburban than rural.
“That means that there are going to be far greater numbers that are going to be evacuated, as we’re seeing now. And counties and cities are going to have to expand their budgets,” said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College who has written extensively wildfires. “These fires are not just fast and furious, but they’re really expensive to fight.”
The early official count was that at least 150 structures burned in the Ventura County fire.
Mansions and modest homes alike were in flames. The Hawaiian Village Apartments burned to the ground. The Vista del Mar Hospital, which treats patients with mental problems or substance abuse, including veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome, smoldered after burning overnight.
Aerial footage showed dozens of homes in one neighborhood burned to the ground and a large subdivision in jeopardy as the flames spit out embers that could spark new blazes. More than 27,000 people were evacuated.
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