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Wind-driven fires force California evacuations, turn homes to ash

Wildfires are burning out of control along the Southern California coast. Out of four fires on Thursday, the biggest and most destructive blazed its way down to the beach in Ventura County, closing parts of a major freeway. At least 200 homes and other buildings have been destroyed and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate. Miles O’Brien learns more from John Sepulvado of KQED.

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  • Miles O’Brien:

    New evacuations are spreading along the Southern California coast tonight, as wildfires burn out of control.

    The flames so far have destroyed at least 200 homes and other buildings, forcing tens of thousands of people to leave.

    The biggest and most destructive of the fires blazed its way down to the beach today in Ventura County. Fire crews fought back, but the Thomas Fire repeatedly closed parts of US-101, the coastal freeway.

  • Joseph Ruffner:

    We evacuated the night before last, came home, and everything was — the fire was down in that direction. And this morning, there was a wall of fire, and I didn't think it was no big deal, but it's coming back to burn what it didn't burn yesterday.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Overnight, gusting winds amplified the inferno. Flames threatened the resort town of Ojai, where officials ordered most of the 7,000 residents to get out of harm's way.

    Evacuation orders also went out for several hundred people in Santa Barbara county.

  • Woman:

    I only had 45 minutes to grab everything for my little girls.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Some who evacuated earlier have no idea what remains.

  • Woman:

    And I know a lot of people have lost their homes. I just hope that our home is still there.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    As the day started, four major fires were burning across Southern California. The Thomas Fire alone stretched from the mountains to the Pacific Ocean, an area roughly the size of Denver.

    In Los Angeles county, crews confronted the smaller Skirball Fire. That threatened the tony Bel Air area, and destroyed at least four homes. Thick plumes of smoke and poor air quality also forced 265 schools and the Getty Center art complex to close.

  • Darlene Jordan:

    This is what's left of our house.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But it's already too late for Darlene Jordan and others. Now they can only sift through the ashes.

  • Darlene Jordan:

    You know, you build memories in a house, from everywhere we went, all our travels and just everything. I'm just grateful that we're OK. That's all that mattered, was that. We were OK and our dog was OK.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Elsewhere, a man risked his life overnight to save a wild rabbit from one fire, and another blaze destroyed more than two dozen horses. Despite the losses, officials took hope from a forecast of wind gusts at 30 to 40 miles an hour. They'd expected winds twice that strong.

  • Armando Hogan:

    In a wind-driven event, wind is king. We're not quite out of the woods yet. But now here at daylight, we're going to do everything we can to hit it hard, hit it fast and hit it safely.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    They also acknowledged the worst may be yet to come.

    Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti-

  • Mayor Eric Garcetti:

    The prediction is, even though this is a time of calm winds, that we will continue to get gusts through Saturday that will be erratic and unpredictable, as high as 50 to 70 miles per hour.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Later, another wind-driven fire erupted, this time in San Diego County, forcing more evacuations.

    And PBS station KQED's John Sepulvado joins us from the San Fernando Valley on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He's been reporting on the wildfires there.

    John, just give us an update on the conditions right now. I know the winds are not quite as high as expected.

  • John Sepulvado:

    They're not quite as high as they expected, but they are definitely fierce.

    In fact, we had problems on the way over here. As I was driving from Ojai, which is a town of about 7,500 people, to here, there was a massive wind gust. It knocked over a power pole, knocked over all the wiring and the conduits that go with that right onto the ground in front of everyone.

    We saw electric wires bouncing like rubber bands. It's a mess. It's not as bad as they thought it was, howling-wise, but it's still pretty bad.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Where you have been driving around all throughout this fire region, there's a tremendous economic disparity. I'm curious how people at either end of the spectrum economically are coping.

  • John Sepulvado:

    So, on the way over here, Miles, I saw one group of people. These are private firefighters who are hired by insurance companies or they're often sometimes even hired by large ranchers.

    They bring large water trucks. They're able to have a lot of resources. These are all private, all paid for privately. And they are essentially able to mitigate any damage done to multimillion-dollar homes in many cases.

    Juxtapose that with just down the road. You will see people who are working the farms and they're working the fields, and many of them, as we all know, are undocumented. And these are folks that, even though there is ash raining down, they are still going to work because they can't afford to miss that day's pay.

    So this fire really exemplifies and in a lot of ways highlights the inequities and inequalities in California.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    I know you have spent a lot of time covering fires in the northern part of California, your home turf. What are the differences between the two?

  • John Sepulvado:

    Well, the differences here is that there is a lot more smoke. There's a lot more media attention, because Los Angeles is home to so many media outlets, so more people are paying attention to it.

    Climate Scientologists — or — pardon me — climate scientists think that that's a good thing that people are paying attention to these increasing wildfires. What is also very different is that this is largely in ruraler areas, which it's funny because Southern California is much more densely populated.

    But we're seeing these fires happen just on the outskirts right now of different towns. For example, in Ojai, where I was last night, it looked like the fire was going to sweep into this town, small town in a rural area, and it didn't at the last minute.

    We didn't see that same thing happen in the North Bay. The fire was indiscriminate and the fire was deadly. It was the deadliest fire in California history.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    December fires are somewhat unusual, although that is changing as the climate warms up. A few words on that.

  • John Sepulvado:

    Just very briefly, someone told me yesterday that this is not a fire season anymore, it's a fire year, and it's something that, from January to December, California and other Western states are going to have to deal with.

    Senator Ron Wyden out of Oregon has made it really clear that he wants to see fire funding restored. Right now, a lot of the money that is supposed to go — that could be going to prevention is going to fight fires like these. It's getting much more costly and it's proving, especially in California, to be a significant drain on resources.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    John Sepulvado with KQED, thank you very much.

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