Southern California wildfire grows to 45,000 acres; thousands evacuated

SANTA PAULA, Calif. -- Howling Santa Ana winds pushed a wildfire from rural hills into parts of the Southern California city of Ventura overnight with explosive speed, destroying dozens of buildings and forcing thousands of people to evacuate.

By Tuesday morning, the fire had burned about 45,000 acres in 13 hours, and some homes were ablaze in the northern part of Ventura -- a city of more than 100,000 people along the Pacific coast.

The fast-moving fire forced sheriff's deputies to knock on doors to warn residents to evacuate in the dark. About 150 buildings had been destroyed by Tuesday morning.

On Ventura's northern edge, at least 10 homes and numerous palm trees were burning in one neighborhood, sending thick smoke and dangerous embers into the gusty air.

Evacuee Catherine Wastweet stood on a street and looked up to the foothills where her neighborhood was aflame.

"We live up there ... but we just don't know whether our house is burned down or not, because we can't even see through all of the smoke," she said.

The brush fire, called the Thomas Fire, was first reported at Steckel Park, just north of Santa Paula, around 6:30 p.m. Monday, according to the Ventura County Fire Department.

By early Tuesday, the fire was burning at a rate of nearly an acre per second. At that speed, it would have covered Manhattan's Central Park in about 15 minutes.

About 27,000 people were under mandatory evacuation in Ventura County as fire officials warned the powerful winds could push flames further into Ventura.

A dead animal was found at the site of a rollover car crash near the evacuation zone Monday night, Ventura fire officials said.

Initially, authorities reported that a person had died there, but they later clarified that no human body had been found.

"The fire is still out of control and structures continue to be threatened throughout the fire area," the Ventura County Sheriff's Office said on a local emergency preparedness website.

"Due to the intensity of the fire, crews are having trouble making access, but there are multiple reports of structures on fire."

Within a few hours, the fire jumped to thousands of acres as Santa Ana winds, blowing as fast as 40 to 60 mph, carried its embers. The fire engulfed dry chaparral and climbed through steep terrain.

The fire also burned down power lines, at one point leaving more than 260,000 homes and businesses without power in Ventura County and neighboring Santa Barbara County, said Susan Cox, a spokeswoman for Southern California Edison.

By early Tuesday, power had been restored to all but 20,000 customers -- but more outages were possible because flames were burning along power transmission paths, Cox said.

As the fire spread, the nearby hills glowed a fiery orange as residents in Santa Paula threw a few of their belongings into cars to evacuate, according to video footage.

Because it was night and heavy winds were blowing, authorities couldn't immediately use air tankers and helicopters to help battle the wildfire.

About 1,000 firefighters are battling the blaze or heading to the area to help.