High winds to hamper California firefighters into weekend

By Alex Dobuzinskis
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Burned mobile homes are seen at the Monserate Country Club after the Lilac Fire, a fast moving wildfire, swept through their community in Bonsall, California

Burned mobile homes are seen at the Monserate Country Club after the Lilac Fire, a fast moving wildfire, swept through their community in Bonsall, California, U.S., December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Alex Dobuzinskis

VENTURA, Calif. (Reuters) - Armies of firefighters tried to take advantage of diminished winds on Friday while battling six major Southern California wildfires that have raged for five days and destroyed at least 500 structures.

Meteorologists warned that the winds, which have been blowing towards the ocean, would reverse in the afternoon, putting some of the 8,700 firefighters along the coast at risk of being trapped.

The big fires, as well as several smaller ones, have chased some 212,000 Californians from their homes since igniting on Monday. The blazes stretch from the San Diego area up the Pacific Coast to Santa Barbara County, putting billions of dollars of property at risk.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday issued a federal emergency declaration for California, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security to coordinate relief efforts.

The largest of the blazes, known as the Thomas Fire, was in Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles, and has charred 132,000 acres (53,418 hectares) and destroyed 439 structures, officials said. More than 2,600 firefighters from as far away as Portland, Oregon, and Nevada, made progress against the blaze with 10 percent contained, up from 5 percent on Thursday.

CAL FIRE spokesman David Clark said personnel were concentrating around the Ventura County towns of Ojai, which had flames on three sides, and Santa Paula.

The Santa Ana winds, which blow hot and dry across Southern California to the Pacific, eased up on Friday, ranging from 5 miles per hour (8 km per hour) to 35 mph (56 kph). That turned out to be a mixed blessing for firefighters because the lingering smoke limited the use of water-dropping aircraft.

"No wind is good because it decreases the fire activity but if it’s too smoky to drive and see where you’re going, it’s too smoky to fly," Clark said.


CHANGE OF DIRECTION

Meteorologists said the winds would shift early on Friday afternoon and blow in from the ocean, said CAL FIRE spokesman Guy Anderson. That could pose a danger to the more than 3,500 personnel fighting the Thomas Fire.

“Whenever there’s a wind shift, if it happens suddenly, it can put forces in danger,” Anderson said.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Some 86,000 homes could be destroyed in the three large fires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, according to CoreLogic Inc <CLGX.O> a California-based risk analysis firm, with reconstruction possibly totalling $27.7 billion.

About 180 miles (290 km) south of Ojai, the Lilac Fire swelled from 10 acres to 4,100 acres (1,659 hectares) in a few hours on Thursday, CAL FIRE said, prompting Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency for San Diego County.

The blaze destroyed 20 structures and prompted evacuations and road closures.

The Skirball Fire, which started on Wednesday, has reached into the wealthy enclave of Bel-Air on Los Angeles' West Side. Some major highways in the densely populated area were intermittently closed.

In the seaside enclave of Faria Beach, caught between burning mountains and the Pacific Ocean northwest of Ventura, fires spread down the smoking hills.

Heavy smoke made breathing hazardous in some areas, and residents were urged to stay indoors. Ventura County authorities said air pollution measures in the Ojai Valley were "off the charts."

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country's second largest with more than 640,000 students, closed more than one-quarter of its nearly 1,100 schools for a second day on Friday. The University of California Santa Barbara cancelled classes as well.

The Los Angeles Police Department tweeted a photo of a police officer in a respirator rescuing a cat. The Los Angeles County animal shelter said it was hosting 184 pets including llamas, donkeys and horses while reports said 29 horses were burnt to death on Tuesday at a ranch in the Sylmar neighbourhood of Los Angeles.

California is still recovering from wildfires in the northern part of the state that resulted in insured losses of more than $9 billion in October. Those fires, which were concentrated in California's wine country, killed 43 people.


(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Peter Szekely and Bill Trott; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Shumaker)