VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 5: Edward Aguilar runs through flames from the Thomas Fire to save his cats at his mobile home along Highway 33 in Casita Springs in Ventura County Tuesday. Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Extreme winds are fueling uncontrollable fires in Southern California. Here’s what we know


Massive wildfires that burned across Southern California on Wednesday have destroyed hundreds of homes, closed schools and set off mass evacuations. Five fires are currently ablaze, and the largest — the Thomas fire in Ventura County — has reached the Pacific coast after starting 30 miles inland, according to the Associated Press.

The Thomas fire erupted late Monday. By Wednesday morning, it had ripped through 65,000 acres, the Ventura County Fire Department said on its website. California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency after at least 150 homes were destroyed, and 50,000 people were forced to evacuate.

Cal Fire officials reported that several of these fires ignited earlier this week and have now rapidly spread across 85-square-miles of land. Emergency responders dispatched quickly to evacuate residents and shut down roads, but the fires became unruly and violent. It's been deemed unsafe, especially at the Thomas fire, for rescuers to enter the area.

The fires mainly affected a forested, hilly area north of Ventura, but flames have encroached into the northern edge of the city. On December 6, 2017, Cal Fire estimated that at least 12,000 structures were threatened by fire. Photo by NASA Earth Observatory (acquired Dec. 5, 2017)

How severe is the Thomas fire? According to the Deputy Chief Scott McLean of Cal Fire, the fast-moving Thomas fire resembles the northern California's Tubbs fire from October, which killed more than 20 people and burned through 34,000 acres.

McLean told the San Francisco Chronicle that "we're dealing with extreme wind conditions and weather that is extremely dry and [difficult terrain]. This is not flat land, and some areas are inaccessible to get equipment to."

What sparked these flames? The cause of the fires is unknown. Some studies have shown that 84 percent of wildfires are spurred by humans. But what really matters is what fuels the flames.

McLean explained that California's strong winds and latest wave of droughts were likely the driving forces behind how quickly these fires grew, and how quickly they became uncontrollable. These fires were driven by powerful Santa Ana winds — extremely dry winds that originate inland and flow outward toward coastal California. These 50 to 70 mile per hour gusts essentially fan open flames, making them grow and engulf anything in their path, climate and weather scientist Marshall Shepard told Forbes Magazine.

In addition to wind, dryness, heat from drought or even storm lightning strikes can create ideal conditions for flames to spread.

LAKE VIEW TERRACE, CA – DECEMBER 05: Firefighters try to control a pile of railroad ties and a trailer burning to protect the structure near Dexter County Park on December 5, 2017 in Lake View Terrace, California. Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Can these flames be contained? The Thomas fire is currently moving faster than the 1,700-plus rescuers and firefighters can wipe out the flames, the New York Times said. And on top of that, most areas are too dangerous to enter.

Santa Ana winds are expected to continue until Thursday, according to theNational Weather Service. So Los Angeles public health officials said evacuation has taken priority over snuffing out flames.

What's next? By Wednesday morning, another blaze set off in Los Angeles. The new incident, named the Skirball fire, has burned 150 acres and propelled more evacuations throughout the Bel Air area. The fire also shut down Interstate 405 on the east side near the Getty Center exit, causing massive traffic congestion. Winds in this area reached up to 25 miles per hour.

As of now, the Los Angeles fire department said hundreds of firefighters are on the scene, as well as water-dropping helicopters. They're ready and waiting for winds to die down.

To follow updates of ongoing and contained fires, visit the Cal Fire 2017 Statewide Fire Map.

Extreme winds are fueling uncontrollable fires in Southern California. Here’s what we know first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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