Winds whip up California fires, prompting evacuations

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Smoke rises behind a leveled apartment complex as a wildfire burns in Ventura, Calif.

Smoke rises behind a leveled apartment complex as a wildfire burns in Ventura, Calif. (Photo: AP)

VENTURA, Calif. (AP) — Raked by ferocious Santa Ana winds, explosive wildfires on the edge of Los Angeles and in the foothills outside the city burned a psychiatric hospital and scores of other structures Tuesday and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

One of the blazes broke out Monday in Ventura County and grew wildly to more than 70 square miles (180 square kilometers) in a matter of hours, county Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said. It was fanned by winds clocked at well over 60 mph (96 kph).

A smaller fire erupted on the northern edge of Los Angeles, threatening the Sylmar and Lakeview Terrace neighborhoods, where residents scrambled to get out. It was estimated at more than 6 square miles (15 square kilometers). About 2,500 homes were ordered evacuated.

Just weeks ago, wildfires broke out some 400 miles to the north in wine country and other parts of the state, killing 44 people and destroying 8,900 homes and other buildings.

At least 150 structures burned in the Ventura County fire, officials said. TV reports showed homes in flames, along with Vista del Mar Hospital, which treats patients with mental problems or substance abuse, including veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

More than 27,000 people were evacuated and one firefighter suffered bumps and bruises in a vehicle accident in Ventura County. Authorities initially reported one death, but then retracted that, saying a dead dog but no person was found in an overturned car.

The fire erupted near Santa Paula, a city of some 30,000 people about 60 miles (97 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles. Many of the evacuated homes were in that city.

A man watches as a wildfire burns in Ventura, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A man watches as a wildfire burns in Ventura, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Pushed by winds, the fire moved toward Ventura, a city of 106,000 where more people were ordered to clear out.

"It was just exponential, huge growth because the winds, 50 mile an hour out of the east, were just pushing it and growing it very, very large, very quickly," Lorenzen said shortly after sunrise.

He said daylight would allow air tankers and helicopters to go into action.

Thomas Aquinas College, with about 350 students, was evacuated.

The smaller fire on the northern edge of Los Angeles also burned some homes, but no estimates were released.

The flames were driven by Southern California's dry and gusty Santa Ana winds, which have contributed to some of the region's most disastrous wildfires. They blow westward, from inland areas toward the coast, speeding up as they squeeze through mountain passes and canyons.

Nearly 180,000 customers in the Ventura County lost power, and schools in the district were closed.

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