Wildfires rage across southern California

Wildfires rage across southern California

LOS ANGELES – Agence France-Presse
Wildfires rage across southern California


Firefighters have been battling raging wildfires across southern California that have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, including residents on the outskirts of Los Angeles, America's second-largest city.

Winds with hurricane-force gusts of up to 130 kilometers per hour fueled the blazes, creating apocalyptic scenes of hillsides engulfed in billowing smoke and towering plumes of flame.

The blazes 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.

About 200,000 residents were evacuated from their homes at one point, though some were due to return on Dec. 7 evening.

Authorities said the four biggest 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 blow in hot and dry from the California desert, and the California Fire Department (Cal Fire) said gusty winds and extremely low humidity would continue through Dec. 10.

"Prepare now to ensure if evacuated you and your family are ready to GO!" Cal Fire said on Twitter.

Despite the intensity of the fires, only one fatality has been reported so far. Tim Lohman of the Ventura County Sheriff's Office said an unidentified body had been found overnight on Dec. 7.    

More than 4,000 firefighters and dozens of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters have been deployed to combat the fires in Los Angeles County and Ventura County, fire officials said.

"We hear propane tanks blow up. It means that a house is burning. It's very sad," said one resident standing near the fence of a ranch in the rural area, where many horses have had to be evacuated.

The Pentagon announced that the California National Guard is deploying 65 troops to assist in the firefighting efforts, which are being hampered by the seasonal Santa Ana winds.

"There will be no ability to fight fire in these kinds of winds," Cal Fire chief Ken Pimlott said.

Cal Fire officials warned residents to be ready to leave at a moment's notice.     

This has been California's deadliest year ever for wildfires. More than 40 people died in October when fires ravaged the state's wine-producing counties north of San Francisco.