SANTA PAULA, Calif. (CBSNewYork/AP) — For the second time in two months, wind-driven fires tore through California communities in the middle of the night, leaving rows of homes and a psychiatric hospital in ruins Tuesday and sending tens of thousands of people fleeing for their lives.
There were no immediate reports of any deaths or serious injuries in the blazes burning in Southern California’s Ventura County, on the edge of Los Angeles and in inland San Bernardino County.
Fire officials say the blaze, dubbed The Thomas Fire, broke out Monday and grew wildly to nearly 80 square miles (207 square kilometers). It was fanned by dry Santa Ana winds clocked at well over 60 mph (96 kph) that grounded firefighting helicopters and planes. The quick spread is being blamed on high winds, with gusts up to 78 miles-per-hour.
“The prospects for containment are not good,” said Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen. “Really Mother Nature’s going to decide when we have the ability to put it out, because it is pushing hard with the wind.”
“Once the fire has breached the inside of the house, all we can do is go defensive and prevent the fire from spreading to other homes,” he added. “You get these embers that work their way into the smallest little places — through attic vents. And a lot of times that’s where the fires start.”
Desperate homeowners used garden hoses to help save their property, but many battles were being lost. Flames devoured dozens of homes and businesses, and thousands more are threatened. Evacuation orders are in place for nearly 8,000 homes.
Residents of Santa Paula, about 70-miles northwest of Los Angeles, say they got reverse 911 calls ordering them to leave their homes.
“I’m not going to wait around for somebody to have to come rescue me so I’m outta here,” evacuee June Byrum said.
“We’ve been here almost 30 years and we’ve gone through floods, we’ve gone through fires, it’s just the wind, you don’t know where it’s going to go,” said Chula Casas.
“Good friends up the street lost their home. It’s awful,” another man added.
Helicopters are being used to douse the flames while firefighters from neighboring counties are being brought in to help, but officials say weather conditions are not favorable. The National Weather Service predicts continued high winds and low humidity throughout the week.
The fire also struck some key transmission lines, knocking out power to tens of thousands of customers.
Several school districts are closed and shelters have been set up at schools and county fairgrounds for evacuees.
A driver was killed in a fire-related accident and at least one firefighter has also been injured.
About 50 miles east in Sylmar, another wildfire has burned down at least eight houses, CBS News’ Chris Martinez reported. Meanwhile, winds are whipping up a fast-growing blaze in Santa Clara, forcing a major freeway closure.
Just eight weeks ago, wildfires that broke out in Northern California and its wine country killed 44 people and destroyed 8,900 homes and other buildings.
Fires aren’t typical in Southern California this time of year but can break out when dry vegetation and too little rain combine with the Santa Ana winds. Hardly any measurable rain has fallen in the region in the past six months.
Like the deadly October fires in Napa and Sonoma counties, the blazes are in areas more suburban than rural.
“That means that there are going to be far greater numbers that are going to be evacuated, as we’re seeing now. And counties and cities are going to have to expand their budgets,” said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College who has written extensively about wildfires. “These fires are not just fast and furious, but they’re really expensive to fight.”
The early official count was that at least 150 structures burned in the Ventura County fire, but it was sure to go higher.
Nearly 180,000 customers in the Ventura County lost power, and schools in the district were closed. Some firefighting efforts were hampered when pumping stations lost power.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)