Massive fire forces thousands to evacuate in Southern California

Posted at 6:53 AM, Dec 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-05 07:00:10-05

 Pushed by powerful Santa Ana winds, a Southern California fire spread with explosive speed to 26,000 acres on Monday night, forcing thousands to evacuate in the dark.

One person died in a rollover car crash while trying to evacuate from the fire, said Mark Lorenzen, Ventura County Fire chief in a press briefing Monday night.

About 7,786 homes in Ventura and Santa Paula are under mandatory evacuation as fire officials warned that the powerful winds could turn the flames toward the city of Ventura. The fire is rapidly spreading with 0% containment.

“The fire is still out of control and structures are threatened throughout the fire area,” according to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. “Due to the intensity of the fire, crews are having trouble making access, but there are multiple reports of structures on fire.”

At least two structures have been lost, Lorenzen said.

Ventura County Sheriff deputies were knocking on doors and driving in neighborhoods, warning residents to evacuate.

The fire also burned down power lines, causing widespread outages in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties that affected more than 260,000 people, Susan Cox, spokeswoman for Southern California Edison said.

The brush fire, called the Thomas Fire, was reported at Steckel Park, which is just north of Santa Paula around 6:30 p.m. local time, according to initial reports to the Ventura County Fire Department. It ignited as officials had earlier warned of extreme fire danger in the area due to the Santa Ana winds, blowing as fast as 40 to 60 mph.

Within a few hours, the fire jumped to thousands of acres as winds carried its embers. The fire engulfed dry chaparral and climbed through steep terrain.

As the fire spread, the nearby hills glowed a fiery orange as residents in Santa Paula hurled a few of their belongings into their cars as they prepared to evacuate, as seen in CNN affiliate videos.

Because it was night and heavy winds were blowing, authorities couldn’t use the eight air tankers and six helicopters to help battle the wildfire.

“We’ll have them as soon as light is out and they can safely fly,” Lorenzen said.

So far, more than 500 firefighters are battling the blaze.

Officials shut Route 150, between Ojai and Santa Paula, due to the fires. All students at the Thomas Aquinas College, a private Catholic college in Santa Paula, were evacuated Monday night, the school tweeted. The college, Santa Paula and Ventura Unified School Districts announced their Tuesday closures.

Two evacuation centers were opened for residents who had to leave their homes.

Just hours into the disaster, California’s Office of Emergency Services secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency early Tuesday to fight the fire.