Tens of thousands evacuated as California wildfires rage

Wildfire
Firefighters watch a helicopter drop water on a burning hillside in Porter Ranch, California on October 11, 2019. Much of California was on high alert Friday as wind-driven wildfires tore through the state's south, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and destroying multiple structures and homes. Fire officials said an 89-year-old woman died in Calimesa, about 70 miles (115 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, when fire swept through a trailer park overnight after the driver of a garbage truck that caught fire dumped his burning load nearby. / AFP / Josh Edelson

LOS ANGELES — Wind-driven wildfires forced the evacuation of about 100,000 people in southern California Friday and destroyed dozens of structures and homes as authorities warned it could take days to extinguish the flames.

By Friday evening, the strongest blaze, dubbed the Saddleridge Fire, had consumed 7,542 acres (3,052 hectares) in areas of the San Fernando Valley, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of downtown Los Angeles, fire officials said.

They added that it had damaged or destroyed at least 31 structures and was 13 percent contained as of Friday evening.

One man in his 50s died of a heart attack as he struggled to save his home in the Porter Ranch area, fire officials said.

The fire quickly got out of control after it erupted late Thursday for unknown reasons in the city of Sylmar, driven by low humidity and gusts known as the Santa Ana winds.

“This is a very dynamic fire,” Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas told a news conference.

“Do not wait to leave,” he urged residents. “If we ask you to evacuate, please evacuate.”

He said some 1,000 firefighters, backed by water-dropping helicopters and planes releasing fire retardants, were battling the blaze that forced the shutdown of several major highways. The metro line in the area was also closed as were schools and businesses.

“We’ve calculated that the fire is moving at a rate of 800 acres per hour,” Terrazas said, adding that it would probably take days to get it under control.

Some 200 firefighters were meanwhile battling several other blazes in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, including one that tore through a trailer park and was started by burning trash. That blaze, dubbed the Sandalwood fire, destroyed 76 homes and buildings and killed an 89-year-old woman who was unable to escape the flames.

There were no immediate reports of injuries, but authorities ordered several hundred homes in the area be evacuated.

The National Weather Service said it expects the high winds fanning the flames to subside by Friday evening, making it easier for firefighters to do their work.

A red flag warning — which indicates ripe conditions for wildfires — remains in effect through Saturday.

“That seems to be the new normal in California,” lamented Sylmar resident Oscar Mancillas, as he helplessly watched the flames spread in the hillside near his home.

“I mean the vegetation is so dry... but we’re kind of lucky because it didn’t grow back from the last fire,” he told AFP. “In California you have to be earthquake ready and you have to be fire ready... and for those of us who have a family, it’s a little daunting sometimes.”