Gusty Santa Ana winds and bone-dry conditions continued to stoke major wildfires in Southern California on Thursday as new evacuations were ordered for coastal communities in Ventura County and officials announced the discovery of a dead body near Ojai.
Winds picked up late Thursday morning, posing a challenge to firefighters battling flames in the massive 96,000-acre Thomas fire in Ventura County. At Faria Beach wind speeds more than doubled in the span of an hour, pushing flames closer to the coastal community.
As smoke billowed overhead and palm trees burned, a police officer drove through the settlement with a megaphone blaring: “Mandatory evacuation” and “Please go the other way, the road is closed.”
Authorities also urged residents to evacuate forested areas near Ojai, at the wildfire’s northern front.
The National Weather Service predicted winds of 28 to 35 mph with gusts up to 50 mph in the Faria Beach area until 5 or 6 p.m., meteorologist Todd Hall said.
“If they get through the afternoon portion, it’ll start turning around,” Hall said. A mild, onshore breeze could help firefighters battle flames at Faria Beach on Thursday night, he said, but the rest of Southern California can expect sustained Santa Ana winds for the rest of the day.
Winds across Los Angeles and Ventura Counties are expected to decrease to 30 to 40 mph by Thursday night. By Friday, the Santa Anas could slow to 15 to 25 mph.
The Thomas fire, which is just 5% contained, has caused multiple closures of major roads including the 101 Freeway, Highway 33 and Pacific Coast Highway near Faria, on Wednesday night and Thursday.
The Thomas fire grew in two directions overnight: Santa Ana winds from the northeast pushed flames toward Carpinteria and the small town of La Conchita, but the fire also moved in the opposite direction toward Ojai and the Los Padres National Forest, likely driven by the topography and chaparral fueling it, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Marisol Rodriguez.
“It was truly a miracle that the predicted fierce winds failed to materialize. We were waiting for them, but they didn’t come,” said Rudy Livingston, Ojai’s finance director. “All I can say is, ‘Thank God.’ If they come, it would have been very ugly here.”
On Wednesday night, wildfires raced westward along mountains north of town, forming an eerie bright-orange line of flames several miles long. Just south of Ojai’s city limits, fire crews were attacking smoldering hot spots with water and hand tools.
A woman’s body was found Wednesday night at the site of a car accident on Wheeler Canyon Road. The cause of death and the woman’s identity have not been determined, Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Donoghue said.
Firefighters defended the small beach community of La Conchita overnight. The few residents who stayed behind kept their homes with water as a precaution, even though firefighters told them not to help.
Around 3:30 a.m., the fire from the hillside made it to the backyard of Julio Valera’s home.
Valera, 66, said he and his wife packed their belongings into their car and his wife left, but he stayed behind to keep an eye on the house.
When the flames reached a tall, dry pine tree next to his home, his jaw dropped. The tree exploded in flames. Valera held his forehead.
“Oh, man,” said Valera, who has lived in La Conchita for about 30 years.
Next door, embers had set an empty home on fire. It was the only structure in the vicinity that was destroyed.
Hours later, Valera’s eyes were red from the smoke, his hair uncombed, but the danger had apparently passed.
“I feel such a relief,” he said.
Nearby, by 6:30 a.m., traffic appeared to be moving in La Conchita. A few firefighters remained.
Throughout Southern California, winds that officials feared would blow over trees, knock down power lines and push fires closer to endangered communities were not as strong as anticipated Wednesday night and Thursday, the weather service said.
But the winds were still dangerous and erratic, and powerful enough to drive major fires in the area.
“A lot of these signals that we look at are not quite as impressive as we’d seen earlier,” said meteorologist David Sweet. “Gusts of 80 mph are now gusts of 60 to 65 mph. It’s not that much of a difference, but I guess anything downward is a good thing.”
In Sylmar, where the Creek fire is burning, 12,605 acres had been destroyed and the blaze was 10% contained by Thursday morning. Authorities have confirmed 15 structures destroyed and another 15 damaged, with 2,500 structures still threatened. There are 110,000 people evacuated because of the fire, Los Angeles Fire Capt. Branden Silverman said.
Two firefighters have been hospitalized after battling the Creek fire, Silverman said — one was injured while operating a dozer and the other when a propane tank exploded. Both are expected to recover.
The Creek fire ignited in the Angeles National Forest around 3:45 a.m. Tuesday, then Santa Ana winds pushed it west, Silverman said.
“Firefighters are challenged by high winds, poor access and steep, rugged terrain,” said a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection report.
There are still homes at risk outside the active fire area, said Angeles National Forest Officer Nathan Judy.
“If that fire does hop our containment lines, there are homes in the area, in the west-southside area,” Judy said. “So we’re going to be keeping an eye very close on that this afternoon to make sure that the wind doesn’t blow those embers into those homes.”
The Skirball fire in Bel-Air, which has destroyed four homes and damaged 11 others, remained at 475 acres with 20% containment as of late Thursday morning. Everyone in the 3.2-square-mile evacuation zone — about 700 homes — was still being told to stay away, said L.A. Fire spokesman Peter Sanders.
“If you are a developer in the fire zone in Bel-Air, get the hell out and don’t come back” until evacuations are lifted, said Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, adding that construction crews should not be working right now.
Firefighting efforts Thursday focused on preventing the fire from jumping the 405 Freeway toward the Getty Center and Brentwood, as Santa Ana winds have the potential to push the fire west.
Everyone in those areas should be ready to evacuate, officials said. Overnight and into the morning, firefighters focused on continuing to establish a containment line around the fire and putting out hot spots within the burn area.
“The forward progress of the fire has been stopped,” Sanders said. “The wind is a big concern for today.”
On the other side of the 405, residents west of the fire were ready to evacuate if needed but thankful the winds were weaker than expected.
As a gust blew dried leaves into the air in Brentwood, Bob Greer, 81, opened the trunk of his white Toyota.
It was filled with suitcases, photographs, documents and medication. “The one thing you cannot replace are photographs,” he said.
Greer and his wife both served in the Air Force. Greer retired 15 years ago.
“I’m ready to go in a minute if we need to evacuate,” he said. “When you’re ready, you’re not scared.”
Times staff writers Matt Hamilton, Louis Sahagun, Laura Nelson, Brittny Mejia and Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this report.
12:40 p.m.: This article was updated with information about wind conditions, the Thomas fire, Faria Beach and the Skirball fire.
11:05 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the Thomas fire and wind conditions.
9:45 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the Creek and Skirball fires.
This article was originally published at 8:30 a.m.