SoCal fires spreading, more challenges ahead

Several major wildfires continued to roar across Southern California on Friday, prompting more evacuations while frustrated residents in one community tried to return to their homes.

The wildfires have scorched nearly 160,000 acres this week, said officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. At least 5,700 firefighters are working to contain the towering walls of flames.

The fires have forced 190,000 people out of their homes, some with nothing but their pets and a few mementos.

Some residents of the Sylmar neighborhood, whose lives were uprooted by the Creek Fire, tried to return to their neighborhood Friday morning but were met by police. Fire crews were still doing damage assessment and putting out spot fires, CNN affiliate KCAL/KCBS reported.

People waited for hours, hoping to get back in one neighborhood.

“I’m mad. I just want to get home,” one woman said with a frustrated laugh. “I’m tired of staying in a hotel.”

She was hoping hers was not one of the more than 30 homes destroyed by the Creek Fire.

Latest developments
• Federal assistance: President Donald Trump declared an emergency in the state due to the wildfires and ordered the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

• New fire: The Lilac Fire in San Diego County started Thursday and grew to 4,100 acres in a few hours, leading to new evacuation orders. Evacuation centers have been set up in affected areas as the fire moves west toward Oceanside and Camp Pendleton.

• More injuries: The Lilac Fire has left three people with burn injuries and two firefighters hurt. One firefighter suffered smoke inhalation, while the second one had a dislocated shoulder. The latter popped it back into place and continued working, Schuler said.

• Out of power: At least 20,000 customers in northern San Diego are without power because of the Lilac Fire, according to San Diego Gas & Electric.

• School closings: Officials have shut down schools spanning at least 16 districts.

• State declarations: Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency proclamation for Santa Barbara and San Diego counties. The declarations help free state resources such as the National Guard to support response efforts. He’s also requested federal assistance to supplement state and local emergency response.

• Fast winds: Wind gusts in the region will be 35 to 55 mph through Sunday, which can fan the fire, Aissen said.

Animals in danger
The Ojai Raptor Center, a wildlife rehabilitation facility north of Ventura that specializes in birds of prey, released 14 birds shortly before the mandatory evacuation order came with the approach of the Thomas Fire this week, director Kimberly Stroud told CNN.

“We just turned them loose,” she said. “Their best possibility of survival is to be released and fly away.”

As the fire raged, Spooky the barred owl, Sasquatch the red-tailed hawk, Handsome the turkey vulture and about 20 other “education” animals were placed in small crates to await the evacuation order, Stroud said. The “education” and “ambassador” birds are unable to fly because of injuries. They’re used instead for educational purposes such as school visits.

“It’s better for them to stay where they’re at and comfortable, versus move them around a lot,” she said. “They get stressed out easy.”

But burning embers, drifting ash and heavy smoke endangered the birds, which have sensitive respiratory systems, Stroud said.

After evacuating from Ojai this week, the 24 eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and other birds in crates found a temporary home in the dining room and garage of a volunteer near the beach in Ventura County. Stroud said her sister, two Great Danes and three cats also took up residence there.

Stroud said her phone has been ringing nonstop with “thoughts and prayers” and donations for the animals.

“We’ve already had $3,000 in donations come in from people who care and want to help us,” she said. “That’s going to be our saving grace, because when we get back to the center, it’s going to be a massive cleanup.”

During the Creek Fire in Los Angeles County, 29 horses were killed and those that were rescued sustained severe burns and treated for smoke inhalation, dehydration and stress, according to the Los Angeles Department of Animal Care and Control.

Authorities said hundreds of pets, donkeys and even llamas have filled college facilities, county fairgrounds and sports facilities that were turned into temporary shelters.

How bad is it?
Dry air and strong winds are forecast for the region through Sunday, which may fuel the fires, according to CNN meteorologist Rachel Aissen.

Residents should be ready to evacuate even if they don’t live in areas immediately affected by flames, Cal Fire Division Chief Nick Schuler said Thursday night.

“They need to prepare as if they will be impacted. Where are they gonna go? What are their escape routes? What is their communication to their families?” he said.

The Thomas Fire has burned an area — 132,000 acres or 206 square miles — that’s more than thrice the size of Washington, D.C.

On its first day, It spread over 31,000 acres in nine hours, which is nearly an acre per second. At that rate, it would have consumed New York’s Central Park in about 14 minutes.

7 images show why the Southern California wildfires are so dangerous

The blaze ranks as the 19th most destructive fire in the state’s records. It’s the biggest in Los Angeles since the Bel-Air fire in 1961 torched the homes of the rich and famous.

Fire officials said Thursday brought a historic fire danger score and prompted them to upgrade their color-coding system to include purple for the first time. The scale used to measure the potency of the Santa Ana winds typically runs from gray, for little or no danger, to red, for high danger.

The firefighters
In addition to long hours battling blazes, firefighters are also grappling with the effects of smoke inhalation and embers irritating their eyes.

“Honestly, the firefighters are taking a beating, but we have to acknowledge the residents because they’re taking a beating, too, but they’re cooperating with our orders,” said Thomas Kruschke, spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.

See photos of the fierce wildfires in Southern California

Other agencies have stepped in to help the firefighters, with military and navy helicopters set to join the Lilac Fire effort Friday morning, Schuler said.

The state National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing out of Oxnard also joined the fight, even though roughly 50 of the National Guardsmen involved had to be evacuated themselves, said spokeswoman Maj. Kimberly Holman. Three lost their homes in the blazes, she said.

Some 1,300 state National Guard members have received activation orders, said Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Defense Department spokesman.

US Marines and aircraft from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing were coordinating with Cal Fire to provide aerial firefighting support in northern San Diego County.

The fires
The six blazes vary in size.

Thomas Fire: The largest of the fires has scorched 132,000 acres after starting Monday in Ventura County. It’s 10% contained and has destroyed at least 73 residences. It’s also spread into Santa Barbara County.

Creek Fire: The second-largest blaze ignited a day later in neighboring Los Angeles County. It has burned 15,323 acres and is 20% contained.

Rye Fire: It broke out Tuesday in Los Angeles County and has burned 6,000 acres. Firefighters are making progress, with 35% of the blaze contained.

Lilac Fire: This fast-moving fire consumed 4,100 acres in a few hours after erupting Thursday in San Diego County. It exploded from half an acre to 500 acres in 20 minutes, according to San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn. It’s 0% contained.

Skirball Fire: It started Wednesday as a brush fire in Los Angeles County and is now 30% contained.

Liberty Fire: The blaze in Riverside County has burned 300 acres since it ignited Thursday. It’s 5% contained.