California burns in wildfires driven by wind and drought

For the second time in two months, wind-driven fires are tearing through California communities. So far, rows of homes and a psychiatric hospital lie in ruins and tens of thousands of people have fled for their lives.

Officials reported at least one death in a car accident as blazes burned on Tuesday across 200 square kilometers (80 square miles) in counties abutting Los Angeles. Like fires that killed 44 people and destroyed 8,900 structures in Napa and Sonoma counties in October, the current blazes have broken out in areas more suburban than rural.

Fanned by winds that have topped 100 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour), grounding aircraft and complicating the efforts of more than 1,000 firefighters, the Thomas Fire has grown wildly since beginning in Ventura County on Monday. "It was just exponential, huge growth because the winds, 50-mile-an-hour (80 kph) out of the east, were just pushing it and growing it very, very large, very quickly," said Mark Lorenzen, the county's fire chief.

A smaller fire has burned on the northern edge of Los Angeles, threatening the Sylmar and Lakeview Terrace neighborhoods and billowing smoke that has created a breathing hazard for millions. Officials have yet to release immediate damage estimates, though residents evacuated about 2,500 homes.

The fire reduced whole communities in Ventura County to ashes

'All we've got'

The Ventura County fire erupted 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Los Angeles, near Santa Paula, where 30,000 people live among citrus and avocado orchards and farm fields lining the Santa Clara River. More than 27,000 people have evacuated, and one firefighter suffered bumps and bruises in a vehicle accident in Ventura County.

Aerial footage shows dozens of homes in one neighborhood burned to the ground and a large subdivision in jeopardy as the flames spit out embers that could spark new blazes. Mansions and apartments alike have burned up. The Vista del Mar Hospital, which specializes in mental health and behavioral therapy, smoldered after burning overnight.

"This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly, but we'll continue to attack it with all we've got," California Governor Jerry Brown said.

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Wildfires are a consistent danger for Californians, and insurers have paid out $3.3 billion (€2.8 billion) in claims so far this year. The threat decreases as winter approaches, but blazes erupt when drought combines with the Santa Anas — winds that carry dry air from the deserts to the coast and in 2016 helped contribute to the threat of "firenadoes." Hardly any measurable rain has fallen in the region in the past six months.

"It's been a five, six-year drought so the fuel is just tinder dry and just as ripe as can be for fire spread," Chief Lorenzen said on Tuesday.

California wildfires in pictures

Fire retardant

Air crews are dropping fire retardant to stop the spread of the wildfires that have killed dozens in California. The fires were fanned by high temperatures, dryness and gusting winds.

California wildfires in pictures

Hazardous air quality

An aerial view shows wildfires spewing smoke northeast of Napa in California's wine district. Air quality in the Napa area is "very unhealthy" or "hazardous," according to US government agencies. Many of the reported injuries have been from smoke inhalation.

California wildfires in pictures

Homes destroyed

Thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed, including this neighborhood in Santa Rosa. The city of 175,000 people was one of the hardest hit.

California wildfires in pictures

Wind driven fires

A helicopter drops fire retardant to prevent the spread of wind driven fires. Wild gusts that fueled the fires were up to 50 mph (80 kmh). Thousands of firefighters are battling around 20 rapidly spreading fires.

California wildfires in pictures

Wineries burnt to the ground

Napa and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco are at the heart of California's famous wine industry. The bucolic scenery of forested hills and beautiful vineyards were turned into a black scarred landscape. Several wineries were burnt to the ground.

California wildfires in pictures

Hot spots

One of thousands of firefighters deployed to the region puts out a hot spot as a fire rages in the background. In addition to putting out fires and stop them from spreading, emergency services are focused on evacuating people from the path of deadly destruction. At least 25,000 people have been evacuated.

California wildfires in pictures

Intense heat

The intense heat of the wildfires has melted window frames and car tire rims, leaving many vehicles resting on their axles. Even the glass backboard of a basketball hoop melted due to the heat — dripping from the post and hardening like an icicle.

California wildfires in pictures

Neighborhoods in ash

Two women sift through the remnants of a home in Napa after a wildfire roared through the neighborhood, killing an elderly couple. Officials say the death toll will likely continue to rise.

California wildfires in pictures

The long road to recovery

The morning sun rises on a home in Orange, California after wildfires burned all but the chimneys. US President Donald Trump declared a major disaster in California while the House of Representatives approved a $36.5 billion disaster aid package that will help fire-ravaged California as well as hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas.

mkg/se (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)