LOS ANGELES- Interstate 405 near Los Angeles’ posh Bel-Air area reopened Wednesday afternoon after a brush fire prompted evacuations. It was one in a series of blazes that have scorched more than 83,000 acres, burned scores of buildings and forced tens of thousands of people to flee over three days.
Police shut down 9 miles of I-405 — one of the nation’s busiest freeways — in both directions for much of the day after flames swept down the foothills toward the highway, near Sepulveda Pass and the Getty Center arts complex, as stunned motorists drove by before dawn.
UCLA, a few miles south of the fire, said it believed its campus was safe but canceled afternoon and evening classes, citing difficult traffic conditions. It also canceled its men’s basketball home gave against Montana.
“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.
By 9 a.m., the southbound lanes of that stretch — from the Ventura Freeway to I-10 — were reopened, but the northbound lanes remained closed.
Predawn videos of the 150-acre blaze, dubbed the Skirball Fire because of its proximity to the Skirball Cultural Center, showed bright flames glowing ominously close to motorists. The fire was on the other side of the highway from both the Skirball museum and the Getty museum.
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.
Wind-whipped wildfires are burning extremely dry terrain along the northern and western edges of Los Angeles, and, more extensively, Ventura County, northwest of the city, for a third day.
Heavy Santa Ana winds blamed for spreading the infernos still threaten to multiply the destruction.
The winds are expected to pick up Wednesday evening and Thursday, perhaps with gusts of 50 mph, posing a risk of further spread.
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.
The fires spewed so much smoke they were captured in a NASA image from space.
• The largest fire: The biggest blaze is the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, burning at least 65,000 acres, including parts of Ventura, a city of more than 100,000 people along the Pacific coast. It started Monday evening in a rural area and spread to the city. Officials said the fire has destroyed at least 150 buildings, including an evacuated mental health facility.
• Curfew enacted: On Tuesday, the city of Ventura declared a daily curfew, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., to protect residents and prevent crime such as looting in evacuation areas.
• Told to leave: About 50,000 people in Ventura County have been told or advised to evacuate. More than 12,000 buildings were under threat, officials said Wednesday.
• Creek Fire in northern Los Angeles: The second-largest is the Creek Fire, having burned around 11,000 acres in and near northern Los Angeles’ Sylmar and Tujunga neighborhoods since it began Tuesday morning. Seven firefighters suffered injuries that aren’t considered life-threatening.
• Mass exodus: About 150,000 people in Los Angeles were under evacuation orders Tuesday. The number Wednesday, after the orders given because of the fire near I-405, wasn’t immediately clear.
• Skirball fire: The blaze that closed parts of I-405 has destroyed four buildings, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said.
• Trump tweet: President Donald Trump, on Twitter, said Wednesday his “thoughts and prayers are with everyone in the path of California’s wildfires,” and thanked first responders.
• Power outage: About 43,000 homes were without power Tuesday night, according to Southern California Edison. More outages are possible because flames were burning along power transmission paths, a spokeswoman said.
• School closures: More than 80 Los Angeles public and charter schools were closed Wednesday, as were numerous schools in Ventura County.
• Other fires: The Rye Fire near Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County grew to about 7,000 acres. That fire was spotted near the Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia.
In San Bernardino County, two smaller fires sprang up. One is fully contained, while the Little Mountain Fire is at 34 acres.
Fire could go on for days
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.
In Ventura County, fires tore through neighborhoods Monday and Tuesday, razing homes, reducing them to gray smoldering ashes. It also burned Vista del Mar Hospital, an 82-bed mental health facility in northwestern Ventura, which had been evacuated two hours earlier, Macklin said.
Natalie Horn and her husband fled their Ventura home around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. An hour later, their home was burning to the ground.
When the couple arrived late in the afternoon to see what happened, she let out a deep sob.
Her husband grabbed her tight.
“It’s all gone.” Horn cried.
The couple said they had just moved in a year ago.
“It took a lot of hard work, and we took on plenty of debt to get this home.” Horn said, her eyes red with tears.
‘Everything I have … is gone’
Ventura residents who fled from their homes described tense moments as the fires rapidly approached.
“The embers from the trees were dropping on our cars,” said Mary Robinson, who left Monday night. “We’re so blessed that we still have a house. I can’t believe it, because the fire was so close.”
Samantha Wells-Zuniga, also from Ventura, escaped with her family and watched her apartment complex burn down.
Speaking through tears, she told CNN affiliate KABC, “We’ve been watching all these disasters on TV, you really don’t think about when it happens to you, and what do you pack in that moment?”
They escaped with a few Christmas presents.
“Now, everything that I have, except for my lovely family, is gone,” she said.
The Thomas Fire jumped to thousands of acres with startling speed as Santa Ana winds, blowing as fast as 35 to 50 mph, carried its embers. The fire quickly devoured dry chaparral, as the county has been in a period of moderate drought.
Satellite images show how fast it lit up neighborhoods at night.
The winds were part of the season’s “strongest and longest” Santa Ana event. The Santa Anas are strong, dry winds that high-pressure systems push from east to west, from the mountains and desert areas down into the Los Angeles area.
A red-flag warning, which is for extreme weather conditions that could cause wildfires, is in effect until 8 p.m. Friday