Ojai, California: The flames came from all sides, tearing across cliffs and roaring down mountains, burning through homes and engulfing cars. Entire communities were evacuated, forcing people to grab what they could and flee as raging wildfires spread rapidly, and in multiple directions, across Southern California.
On Friday, officials said that the worst of the wildfires - an enormous, fast-moving blaze known as the Thomas Fire - had surrounded Ojai, a popular winter retreat with about 8,000 residents. Most of the Ojai Valley was under a mandatory evacuation order
Yet even as they scrambled for shelter from the choking smoke and flames that turned idyllic communities into apocalyptic backdrops, many people worried about the dangers still to come.
Officials warned that the wildfire threat could increase through the end of the week, saying that the threat level had exceeded the maximum 'red' threat level and was at 'purple' for the first time ever.
The wildfires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties have so far forced tens of thousands to escape, destroying hundreds of structures and emptying homes, hospitals, schools and multimillion-dollar mansions alike.
In Ventura, the Thomas Fire burned across 90,000 acres by Wednesday night, spreading through an area larger than the city of Philadelphia. Officials there said they had evacuated more than 50,000 people from 15,000 homes, before issuing even more orders to flee.
The columns of flame began stretching toward Santa Barbara and surrounded Highway 101 - a major north-south freeway that straddles the Pacific Coast north of Ventura. The California Highway Patrol said on Friday that it was closing a major section of the highway.
Los Angeles County faced comparatively smaller blazes in the Rye and Creek fires, both of which erupted on Tuesday north of downtown Los Angeles.
But a new blaze, known as the Skirball Fire, began on Thursday in Bel Air, temporarily shutting down Interstate 405 - one of the country's busiest freeways - and forcing the evacuation of 1200 homes across the posh hillside neighbourhoods near the University of California Los Angeles campus. UCLA officials cancelled classes on Friday - just two days before final exams were to begin.
Officials confronted the growing Skirball Fire while continuing to battle the Creek Fire, which had crept into the city on the other side of town.
But by late Wednesday, strong winds caused new flare-ups in the Bel Air area, Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Peter Sanders said. Firefighters made late night water drops from helicopters in hopes of keeping the fire from jumping west of Interstate 405.
With overnight wind gusts up to 80 mph expected in some areas, Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl L. Osby issued an ominous warning on Wednesday night: "It's critically important for people that live in wildland areas that you sleep with one eye open tonight."
Los Angeles officials said that 265 schools in the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles would be closed for the rest of the week as a safety measure.
"Our plan here is to try to stop this fire before it becomes something bigger," Los Angeles Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti said at an earlier news briefing. "These are days that break your heart. But these are also days that show the resilience of our city."
That resilience could face serious tests in coming days.
Officials in Ventura said they expected the fire to grow to the north and west over the next two days, as well as what one Cal Fire official, Tim Chavez, said was a "large probability of spot fires that will spread easily and spread rapidly".
In Los Angeles, officials said they were bracing for another night of extremely strong winds as high as 130 kilometres per hour, which, combined with dry weather and parched vegetation, made the region particularly vulnerable to new fires. At an afternoon news conference, Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph M. Terrazas said the winds could blow embers as far as 16 kilometres away. The index that the department uses to assess environmental conditions for the fire risk is at the highest level he has ever seen in his career, Terrazas said.
Not far from the Skirball Fire, residents and visitors alike were weighing whether to stay or go. Two roommates who live in the Brentwood area packed their bags and were "just hanging tight," said one of the men, 23-year-old Wes Luttrell. Montevis Price, who was visiting Los Angeles from Miami, promptly checked out of his hotel when he saw the blaze.
"I saw the little mountain on fire and that was it," Price said. "You can prepare for a hurricane, but you can't prepare for something that happens all of a sudden."
California Democratic Governor Jerry Brown declared states of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties because of the fires. More than 4,000 firefighters and other first responders fanned out across the region to save lives, protect homes and evacuate residents.
The fire began beneath David and Theresa Brock's house in upper Ojai around sundown on Monday, jumping the road and sprinting up toward them. But a shifting wind pushed it away within 200 metres, and the couple believed their home of 12 years was safe. They stayed up through the night, smoke covering the grounds around them.
"I thought we were doing great, real great," said Brock, a state-certified operator of public water systems.
At about 4am on Tuesday, the winds shifted again. The fire raced toward them, covering five miles in 15 minutes. Brock turned to Theresa and said, "Let's get outside in the dirt." The couple keeps cattle, and the wide, grazed area outside their hilltop home acted as a natural fire break.
"At least out here," he told her, "there's nothing to catch fire."
As the couple watched the flames approach, a transformer blew adjacent to their home, igniting a pepper tree. Sparks were sucked into their attic.
"Then we saw smoke coming out of the vent," Brock, 57, said. "And I thought, 'well, that's it, we can't save it now.'"
Brock pulled his Ford Torino and tractor out of the garage, keeping them in the fire break, and with the help of firemen, managed to pull a few items out of his house.
"But what do you take?" he said. He chose a few family photos, but the cedar chest where Theresa kept all the family documents burned.
"Then I just stood back and watched," he said. "You see these people on TV who have lost everything, and you can't imagine it, until it's you. Now I am that person. I have the clothes on my back."
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