Wildfire spreads with explosive speed in Southern California, thousands evacuate

CALIFORNIA — Pushed by powerful Santa Ana winds, a fire spread with explosive speed to 31,000 acres Monday night and early Tuesday in Southern California’s Ventura County, forcing thousands to evacuate in the dark.

The fire began north of Santa Paula on Monday evening and spread into the edges of Ventura, a city of more than 100,000 people situated on the Pacific coast, the county sheriff’s office said.

About 150 buildings have been destroyed, the sheriff’s office said, and more than 7,700 homes in Ventura and Santa Paula were under mandatory evacuation as fire officials warned the powerful winds could push flames further into Ventura.

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

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

Sheriff’s deputies were driving in neighborhoods and knocking on doors to warn 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, said Susan Cox, a spokeswoman for Southern California Edison.

The brush fire, called the Thomas Fire, was reported at Steckel Park, 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 threw a few of their belongings into cars to evacuate, according to video footage from CNN affiliates.

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.

More than 500 firefighters were battling the blaze Tuesday morning.

Officials shut State 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 said on Twitter. The college and the Santa Paula and Ventura unified school districts announced their closures Tuesday.

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

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.

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