Los Angeles threatened as wildfires spread, forcing 200,000 residents to evacuate
LOS ANGELES — Tens of thousands in Southern California went to bed uneasy or not at all late Wednesday as fire officials warned of powerful winds overnight that could whip up a series of wildfires that have already devoured a large swath of the region.
The National Weather Service was predicting near hurricane-force winds for Thursday morning in the mountains and canyons of Ventura County and northwest Los Angeles County — winds that make for rapid, unpredictable fire spreading, officials said.
Late Wednesday, fire officials ordered new evacuations affecting several thousand people as the massive blaze known as the Thomas fire encroached upon the town of Ojai, an arts community with an upscale, rustic charm northwest of Los Angeles.
Several fires also menaced the nation’s second-largest city, including a 450-acre blaze that burned several multimillion-dollar mansions in the tony Bel-Air neighborhood and threatened the Getty Center arts complex and its priceless collection. The so-called Skirball fire forced officials earlier Wednesday to close down part of Interstate 405 — a key north-south artery.
“These are days that break your heart, but these are also days that show the resilience of our city,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said, thanking firefighters from Los Angeles and other agencies and all city personnel.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who had earlier declared a state of emergency in Ventura, was monitoring the Los Angeles fire while hundreds of homeowners in Bel-Air and the nearby Sherman Oaks neighborhood joined the tens of thousands of other Southern California residents who have already fled the infernos that have scorched more than 83,000 acres and reduced scores of homes and businesses to ashes, NBC Los Angeles reported.
The massive blazes showed no signs of stopping as roaring winds fueled flames that feasted on the tinder-dry conditions in the region. And by midmorning Wednesday, the Skirball fire had already consumed a half-dozen mansions and 150 acres of some of L.A.’s most expensive and desirable properties, The Los Angeles Times reported.
The L.A. Fire Department said at least four structures have been destroyed, and the fire was 5 percent contained. The 405 freeway was later reopened, transportation officials said.
While helicopters bombarded the blaze with water drops, firefighters armed with chainsaws struggled to clear away the thick brush that was feeding the fire.
Police ordered an evacuation of all homes between two of the city’s most storied roadways — Mulholland Drive on the north and Sunset Boulevard on the south — as thick black smoke and swirling ash turned day into night.
Bel Air resident Lori Arkin told NBC News the first inkling she got that something was wrong came at 5 a.m. Wednesday when her husband’s secretary called their home and told them to look outside.
“My son went out, came in, and said, ‘Mom, you gotta see this,'” she said. “The sky was bright orange.”
Immediately, she said, they packed their cars with clothes and with family mementos like her sons’ bar mitzvah videos, grabbed the family dog, Georgie, and a few other items they had accumulated in the 20 years they lived there.
“You look from room to room, you see what makes your house a home, and you realize it’s the people and the animals,” she said.