Wildfire erupts in L.A.'s tony Bel-Air neighbourhood
'God willing, this will slow down so the firefighters can do their job'
A wildfire erupted in Los Angeles' exclusive Bel-Air section Wednesday as yet another part of Southern California found itself under siege from an outbreak of wind-whipped blazes that have consumed multimillion-dollar houses and tract homes alike.
Hundreds of homes across the L.A. metropolitan area and beyond were feared destroyed since Monday, but firefighters were only slowly managing to make their way into some of the hard-hit areas for an accurate count.
As many as five fires have closed highways, schools and museums, shut down production of TV series and cast a hazardous haze over the region. About 200,000 people were under evacuation orders. No deaths and only a few injuries were reported.
From the beachside city of Ventura, where rows of homes were levelled, to the rugged foothills north of Los Angeles, where more than two dozen horses died at a boarding stable, to Bel-Air, where the rich and famous have sweeping views of L.A. below, fierce Santa Ana winds sweeping in from the desert fanned the flames and fears.
Unprecedented danger level
"God willing, this will slow down so the firefighters can do their job," said Maurice Kaboud, who ignored an evacuation order and stood in his backyard with a garden hose at the ready.
Air tankers that were grounded most of Tuesday because of high winds flew on Wednesday, dropping flame retardant. Firefighters rushed to attack the fires before winds picked up again.
They were expected to gust as high as 130 km/h overnight into Thursday, possibly creating unprecedented fire danger. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which uses a colour-coded wind index, issued a purple forecast, the most severe, for the first time ever, director Ken Pimlott said.
"They're going to be extreme tomorrow," Pimlott said. "We need to have everybody's heads up — heads on a swivel — and pay very close attention."
Millions up in smoke
Before dawn Wednesday, flames exploded on the steep slopes of Sepulveda Pass, closing a section of heavily travelled Interstate 405 and destroying four homes in Bel-Air, where houses range from $2 million to tens of millions of dollars.
Firefighters hosed down a burning Tudor-style house as helicopters dropped water on hillsides to protect homes from the 60-hectare blaze.
A Christmas tree saved from the flames was in the front yard of a burned-out house and a large painting was propped against a Range Rover.
Flames burned a wine storage shed at media mogul Rupert Murdoch's 6.5-hectare Moraga Vineyards estate and appeared to have damaged about 2.8 hectares of vines, a spokesperson said.
Classes cancelled at hundreds of schools
Bel-Air was the site of a catastrophic fire in 1961 that burned nearly 500 homes. Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor were among the celebrities who lost houses.
Across the wide I-405 freeway from the fire, the Getty Center art complex was closed to protect its collection from smoke damage. Many schools across Los Angeles were closed because of poor air quality and classes were cancelled at 265 schools Thursday.
UCLA, at the edge of the Bel-Air evacuation zone, cancelled afternoon classes and its evening basketball game. Students on campus wore dust and surgical masks.
By late afternoon, firefighters said they had controlled the fire's advance.
Production of HBO's Westworld and the CBS show S.W.A.T. was suspended because of the danger to cast and crew from two nearby fires.
In Ventura County northwest of L.A., the biggest and most destructive of the wildfires grew beyond 259 square kilometres and had nearly reached the Pacific on Tuesday night after starting about 45 kilometres inland a day earlier.
The fire destroyed at least 150 structures, but incident commander Todd Derum said he suspects hundreds of homes have been lost.
Along a stretch of a hilly subdivision with stunning ocean and mountain views above Ventura, about 65 homes were razed. Fewer than 30 houses still stood in the same area, where embers glowed and trees smouldered. Homes farther up the road fared much better, with only two burned and 42 intact.
Not the typical morning commute... <a href="https://t.co/kJIOQeqsIK">pic.twitter.com/kJIOQeqsIK</a>—@WLV_investor
While winds were calmer Wednesday, the fire remained active around Ventura, spreading along the coast to the west and up into the mountains around the community of Ojai and into the agricultural city of Santa Paula.
"We're basically in an urban firefight in Ventura, where if you can keep that house from burning, you might be able to slow the fire down," said Tim Chavez, a fire behaviour specialist at the blaze. "But that's about it."