Southern California was fighting off a renewed onslaught from the wildfires menacing greater Los Angeles, forcing thousands of evacuations, shutting down schools and highways and leaving the region on edge on Thursday. Winds were expected to strengthen, and gusts threatened to reach 80 miles per hour.
"These will be winds where there will be no ability to fight fires," Chief Ken Pimlott of Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency, warned on Wednesday. "This will be about evacuations and getting people out from in front of any fires that start."
The authorities feared the sparking of new fires, as well as the spread of those that have burned this week and charred more than 110,000 acres of Southern California. Chief Pimlott said forecasters were using a purple color on maps to indicate an "extreme" fire risk, which he called an unprecedented designation.
We've never used purple before," said the chief, whose agency warned of "epic winds" racing across an extremely dry, and densely populated, region.
Here's the latest:
- Late Wednesday night, officials sent an emergency alert to all of Los Angeles County warning of "extreme fire danger."
- The fires in total have destroyed more than 300 homes, businesses and other buildings.
- The outbreaks have forced nearly 200,000 people in the Los Angeles and Ventura areas to evacuate, and thousands of firefighters have been summoned to help.
- Fire and smoke forced the closing of the 101 freeway - the main coastal route north from Los Angeles - between Ventura and Santa Barbara. In addition to evacuations, officials in Ventura County issued boil-water advisories.
- Hundreds of schools were ordered closed for the rest of the week because of the thick blanket of smoke filling the skies. The Los Angeles Unified School District said at least 322 schools, including independent charters, would not hold classes on Thursday.
- The National Weather Service, which warned of the risk of "very rapid fire growth," said winds could diminish Friday into Saturday.
Wildfires circled the Los Angeles area and threatened Bel-Air.
A blaze erupted in Los Angeles's Bel-Air neighborhood on Wednesday, near cherished landmarks like U.C.L.A. and the Getty Museum. Flames raced to the edges of the 405 freeway, which carries about 400,000 vehicles a day and is the nation's busiest highway, prompting lane shutdowns and forcing some commuters to drive through a shower of ash as fires burned along the horizon.
By Wednesday evening, the fire in Bel-Air had consumed at least 475 acres and a handful of structures, small figures compared with some of the other blazes. But in such a densely populated area, the prospect of warm, dry Santa Ana winds whipping the flames into other neighborhoods had many residents of Los Angeles's west side preparing for possible evacuation. Officials ordered 700 homes in Bel-Air evacuated.
Forty miles to the northwest, the largest of several fires had consumed 96,000 acres by Thursday morning and at least 150 structures - probably hundreds more, fire officials said - and threatened 15,000 others in the city of Ventura and neighboring communities, and was 5 percent contained.
Emergency officials said early Thursday that the blaze, known as the Thomas Fire, "continues to burn actively with extreme rates of spread and long-range spotting when pushed by winds." Part of the region's 101 freeway was shut down as the fire reached the highway and edged northwest of Ventura.
Other major fires were burning in the northern San Fernando Valley and the rugged region north of Los Angeles.
From the deck on the roof of his home in Ventura, Tom Sheaffer has spent most of the week watching the fire move from Santa Paula all the way west to the ocean. Mr. Sheaffer, who was born and raised in Ventura, said he had never seen a fire as bad as this.
"This is a whole different level," he said on Wednesday. "The fuel around here is mostly grass, but it's dry grass and it really hasn't burned for many years. The confluence of the hot, dry winds and that fuel that's been building for so many years has just created this awful situation."
The strong winds that are driving the fires are a normal feature of late fall and winter in Southern California. What is different this year - and what is making the fires particularly large and destructive - is the amount of bone-dry vegetation that is ready to burn.
"What's unusual is the fact that fuels are so dry," said Thomas Rolinski, a senior meteorologist with the United States Forest Service. "Normally by this time of year we would have had enough rainfall to where this wouldn't be an issue."
The situation in Southern California is similar to what occurred in Northern California in October, when high, hot winds fueled fires that killed 40 people and destroyed thousands of homes. But while Northern California has since had a lot of rain that has essentially eliminated the fire threat, the south has remained dry.
"We haven't had any meaningful precipitation since March," Mr. Rolinski said.