Firefighters race to contain California wildfires as winds set to strengthen

Firefighters in Southern California were under pressure on Saturday to contain six raging wildfires, which have destroyed hundreds of buildings and forced tens of thousands of people to flee, before fierce winds are expected to strengthen again.

Forecasters predict wind gusts to increase in intensity by Saturday night, challenging the 8,700 firefighters who have been battling the fast-moving blazes for five days from the San Diego area up the Pacific Coast to Santa Barbara County. The fires killed at least one person, destroyed 500 structures, hurt six people and injured four firefighters.

The strengthening winds “potentially put the fires that are currently burning at risk of spreading,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Firefighters have been taking advantage of the past 24 hours to try to get containment lines and strengthen them so that does not happen.”

At the peak, about 212,000 people were forced to flee their homes. Evacuation orders were lifted in some areas — welcome news for many in shelters waiting to see if their homes survived.

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Richard Seabold, 83, and Yvonne Seabold, 91, sit in an emergency shelter on Friday after leaving their home due to a wildfire in Ventura, Calif. (Alex Dobuzinskis/Reuters)

On Saturday, California governor Jerry Brown was expected to meet with residents affected by the fires and tour the wildfire damage in Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles, where the largest of the blazes, the Thomas Fire, has charred 57,870 hectares (143,000 acres) and destroyed 476 structures.

“We’re keeping our fellow neighbours and Californians in our hearts and minds. We’re going to recover,” he said on Twitter on Friday.

Nearly two dozen thoroughbred horses said to be killed in California fires0:50

A 70-year-old woman died in a car crash on Wednesday after smoke inhalation and burns along an evacuation route in Santa Paula, the Ventura County Star newspaper reported, citing medical examiner Christopher Young.

More than 3,800 firefighters from as far away as Portland, Oregon, and Nevada, battled against the Thomas Fire which was 10 per cent contained on Friday, up from 5 per cent on Thursday.

Smoke visible from space

A huge plume of smoke flared from the fire in the Ventura County mountains on Friday and was visible on satellite images, the National Weather Service said. Astronauts have captured images showing the wildfires’ smoke visible from space, and the National Weather Service said visibility was being affected in the San Francisco area.

North of San Diego, the Lilac Fire swelled from four hectares (10 acres) to 1,659 hectares (4,100 acres) in a few hours on Thursday, prompting Brown to declare a state of emergency for San Diego County. The fire destroyed 105 structures.

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A photo taken from the International Space Station and moved on social media by astronaut Randy Bresnik shows smoke rising from wildfires burning in Southern California. (Courtesy @AstroKomrade/NASA/Handout via Reuters)

Fallbrook, known for its avocado orchards, burned, and homes were destroyed in its Rancho Monserate Country Club retirement community. Blazes approached the Camp Pendleton marine base.

A 500-stall stable for thoroughbred race horses at San Luis Rey Downs training site burned late on Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported.

An estimated 25 to 30 horses died, in addition to 29 horses killed in Los Angeles earlier in the week. A trainer suffered second- and third-degree burns over half her body trying to rescue horses, the newspaper said. She was airlifted to a San Diego hospital and placed in a medically induced coma.

Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, a racetrack in a beachside community north of San Diego, said it was providing refuge for more than 900 animals, mostly horses as well as some goats and pigs. A horse hospital was being opened on Friday.

Wildfires in the Los Angeles area forced producers of commercials, television shows and even student films to pause or seek alternate shooting locations. Applications for filming in the Angeles National Forest were also halted this week.

Property worth billions of dollars is at risk. Some 86,000 homes were at risk in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, according to CoreLogic Inc., a California-based risk analysis firm, with reconstruction possibly totalling $ 27.7 billion US.

California is still recovering from wildfires in the northern part of the state that resulted in insured losses of more than $ 9 billion in October. Those fires, which were concentrated in California’s wine country, killed 43 people.

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