LOS ANGELES – Flames ran through the fragile hillsides as advancing armies. Up and down the canyons and coasts of southern California, they burst into neighborhoods and enveloped homes where people used sprinklers and garden hoses as their last desperate defense against wind-blown fires.
On Thursday, hot and dry winds sparked new fires in San Diego and Riverside counties and on the coast. Almost 200,000 people were forced to evacuate, and residents in areas already burned by wildfires feared that erratic high winds could ignite new fires at any time.
Fire and smoke forced intermittent closures of Highway 101: the main coastal route north from Los Angeles, between Ventura and Santa Barbara, along with several secondary roads and smaller roads. On Wednesday, there had been portions of the closed 405 freeway, which sent long lines of traffic to surface streets.
Several new fires erupted, including one in San Diego County that extended to more than 2,000 acres in five hours, destroying and damaging a relatively small number of homes, but threatening at least 1,000 more.
Throughout the region, people wiped the stinging smoke from their eyes and snuggled inside to avoid the flash of acrid air. They stood in their front yards and prayed. They examined their charred homes, fled to evacuation shelters and said that even in this wildfire-prone state, they had never faced late-season fires as fast and fierce as these.
"We've always been under threat of fire, we're used to that," said Suzanne White, who passed by flame curtains on Highway 101 as she fled her home in the city of Ojai, surrounded by mountains. "But this year, the fires are unleashed so fast and furiously that you can not overtake."
"It burns," he said, "and it's still burning."
Some people became anxious about staying and defending their homes or joining the thousands who have already been evacuated. Along Faria Beach, on the edge of the Pacific in Ventura, Steve Andruszkewicz, 75, and his wife, Gloria, had packed both cars in case firefighters who fought near flames told them to go.
Power is over and an acrid smell of smoke wafts through the air. A light snowfall of ash and needles and burned leaves had reached his house.
Further inland in Ventura, Paul Sezzi cautiously observed the heavens and reflected on his battle lost earlier in the week to save his 77-year-old home mother, which his father had built by hand.
After his mother fled, Mr. Sezzi, 51, returned to the house and tried to prevent the destruction with a garden hose. He could see a glow behind the ridge line above him, and when the winds lifted, the hillsides exploded in fire duvets. The flames were sliding down the hills towards the avocado orchards, the neighboring streets … and him.
"It was as if someone had lit a burner on a stove," Sezzi said. "The fire, the ash, the smoke, all good towards me". He approaches me and looks me in the eye. "
Clouds of ash and embers fell, and palm trees and pines exploded like matches, Sezzi said, and as the flames began to surround him, Mr. Sezzi decided that his battle to save the house she was lost, and she had to leave.
The fire destroyed the house, it burned so hot that it broke the chimney and melted a pan Mr. Sezzi's mother used to make Christmas cakes in a "molten metal ball" "
"It's all over," he said Thursday from his own home in Ventura, safe for now, where he looked cautiously out the window and watched the winds. "It's really scary, you just do not know, we never thought the fire could overtake us, but everyone is a little nervous, because where do we evacuate?"
On Tuesday night, Patricia Hampton, 48, was He went to sleep because he did not feel well and was awakened by the sound of helicopters and what sounded like rain falling on the roof of his house floor in Ventura. The sounds were debris and embers.
Ms. Hampton and her boyfriend got on their bikes in the black of the night, their escape only illuminated by the glow of the fire. They rode downhill to the center of Ventura. "I was surprised," he said. "I did not know what to think".
Trish Valenteen said he had been standing in his yard in Ventura and prayed that the fire would pass through the house he shares with his 84-year-old father. They were prepared to evacuate on Tuesday night, but they ended up staying. He thought they were safe, but on Thursday morning, the Santa Ana winds brought a gloomy omen.
"I am listening to how the wind resumes and I realize that we could be looking for more destruction," said Ms. Valenteen. .
In the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, Amanda Saviss, 26, woke up Wednesday and began packing everything she could from her family home on Moraga Drive. Even before they saw the firemen go down the hill from their house, the family knew they had to leave.
"I was in the air everywhere," said Ms. Saviss. "Ash, smoke, all that, we took everything we could, all our lives: clothes, paintings, jewelry."
When they realized they had forgotten to water some nearby dry shrubs, a firefighter allowed them to walk quickly. None of his neighbors had dared to ignore the evacuation orders, he said. "That would be crazy."
They spent most of the morning in a cousin's house, glued to local news. By late afternoon, the family of five began to look for a comfortable place for them and their dog. They landed at the Hotel Angeleno, an iconic cylindrical tower just west of Highway 405 and in front of the burned-out neighborhood of Bel-Air.
They tried to find their house from the window of a tall building but they never managed to see it. They were assured of reports that the flames never reached their street.
On Thursday afternoon, the focus at Bel-Air Hills had been to dig embers and cool hot spots that could ignite another fire. Fire officials warned of an extremely high rate of "brush burns," which indicates how easy it is to start fires and how difficult it is to turn them off.
Along the winding narrow streets of Bel-Air, it was easy to see how quickly the neighborhood could burn.
The extensive properties were surrounded by tall elms and bitterly dry pine needles. Much of the chaparral that normally covers the hills was ash. The blackened embers from the trunks of the trees had collapsed into the roads; one had hit a fireman and burned it around his neck.
Many of the iron towers that protect the mansions had been opened by firefighters who ran towards the hillsides that burned below. Some entrances were covered in pink splashes from fire retardants thrown from the air.
Paul Koretz, the councilor who represents the area, said he had already heard reports of developers coming to the area with work crews. He urged them to "get out."
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