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California Thomas Fire: Ventura Burns as Wind-Fueled Firestorm Spans Mountains to Ocean

IN PICTURES: The fire is at zero containment and has consumed apartment complexes, a hospital and more than 150 homes in its rapid march to the coastline.

Southern California's notorious Santa Ana winds have brought tragedy to Central Coast communities as an explosive fire rapidly consumes vast swathes of Ventura County.

The blaze spans multiple cities and is forcing tens of thousands to evacuate, while reducing homes, businesses, public facilities and an untold amount of agricultural assets to ashes.

Known as the Thomas Fire and beginning in Ventura County's western city of Santa Paula, the uncontrollable firestorm rapidly grew to encompass over 40 square miles (100 kilometers) withi hours, prompting California Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency after 27,000 people were forced to evacuate and 150 buildings were destroyed. Officials say more than 1,000 firefighters are battling the blaze.

The fire has already reached the ocean and remains at zero containment. Meanwhile, at least 1,000 homes in Ventura, Santa Paula and Ojai have been evacuated.

Residents in Ventura were forced to watch as the fire plunged into the heart of the city, fearing that its rapid march in the direction of the nearby ocean couldn't be stopped.

Among the structures consumed were entire apartment buildings, including Ventura's multi-storey Hawaiian Village complex and midtown's Harbor View Apartments. Vista Del Mar Hospital, a behavioral health care-facility for patients with acute psychiatric conditions, including armed forces veterans with PTSD, was also razed. Numerous residential areas, ranging from the affluent to the working-class, have also fallen prey to the wind-whipped inferno.

The dry Santa Ana winds, which have topped out at around 70 miles per hour (115 km per hour), will last for four days rather than the usual 12- to 24-hour period. Officials warn that the embers blown by the winds will continue the fire's inexorable spread across the region.

"The fire growth is just absolutely exponential," Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said. "All that firefighters can do when we have winds like this is get out ahead, evacuate people, and protect structures."

The fire also has triggered a power outage affecting hundreds of thousands of residents in the counties of Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, causing a loss of water pressure that shut off fire hydrants.

Despite the blackouts, residents used the last of their mobile-phone battery charges to attempt to contact friends and family.

Others used their phones to post nightmarish videos and photos to social networks, in some cases risking life and limb for a good shot. As the hashtag #ThomasFire began to trend in the region, rumors fanned out across Twitter and Facebook, causing panic amonbg evacuees about their homes being consumed by the rapidly-expanding firestorm.

When the fire became visible to midtown Ventura resident Natalie Cherot, she ran to nearby homes in an attempt to awaken neighbors and help escort the elderly to safety. She eventually fled, along with her mother, before the mandatory evacuation order was given.

Cherot, who originallly feared her own home had burned down, was later notified it had survived the onslaught. 

"I was confused last night because of the rumors," she told teleSUR. "Twitter had identified streets that had burned, but were not touched at the time. The county fire department Twitter was helpful."

Friends in her neighborhood and in the nearby Hawaiian Village complex weren't so lucky: several "lost everything" but their lives, Cherot said.

Neighborhoods from Ventura’s Main Street to Shell Road are under mandatory evacuation orders, according to CBS News. Evacuation centers have been set up at the county fairgrounds and local high schools.

While California's six-year drought officially ended last winter, officials say much of the vegetation never recovered. Firestorms are fueled by new growth, including tall grasses, trees, weeds and chaparral. These factors, combined with the unseasonably dry conditions in the fall and subsequent hot, gusty winds, combined to create a perfect storm.

The dangers of climate change are exacerbated by unchecked human development in the wildland-urban interface, where dry brush and undeveloped wildland that has evolved to burn exist in close proximity to residential and urban areas. As a result, both Northern and Southern California have faced devastating firestorms with increasing regularity and ferocity.

"Climate change is so dangerous because we've put billions of people and trillions of dollars of property directly into harm's way," journalist and historian Mike Davis told Mother Jones in October. "What we're seeing now is the lineage of bad decisions coming around, biting us, and threatening to devour us."

The Thomas Fire was the largest of several large blazes that broke out across Southern California following the onset of the Santa Ana winds.

In the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the so-called Creek Fire blackened more than 4,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 2,500 homes and a convalescent center north of Interstate 210. The highway remained open even as other roads were closed, officials said.

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Smoke rises into the night sky as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, December 4.
Smoke rises into the night sky as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, December 4. Photo:Reuters
Emergency crews block a roadway as flames spread from a Santa Ana wind-driven brush fire called the Thomas Fire near Ventura, California, Dec. 5, 2017.
Emergency crews block a roadway as flames spread from a Santa Ana wind-driven brush fire called the Thomas Fire near Ventura, California, Dec. 5, 2017. Photo:Reuters
Embers blow from a tree shortly before it fell down near burned cars as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., Dec. 5, 2017.
Embers blow from a tree shortly before it fell down near burned cars as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., Dec. 5, 2017. Photo:Reuters
Firefighters battle flames against the night sky in California.
Firefighters battle flames against the night sky in California. Photo:Reuters
Coastal California
Coastal California's iconic palm trees go up in flames. Photo:Reuters
Officials have warned about burning embers capable of spreading across miles.
Officials have warned about burning embers capable of spreading across miles. Photo:Reuters
Before and after: Ventura
Before and after: Ventura's Hawaiian Gardens apartments were entirely consumed by the fire. Photo:Twitter / OfficiaIMarco
The Thomas Fire viewed from nearby Ojai.
The Thomas Fire viewed from nearby Ojai. Photo:Ojai Green Coalition
The remains of a home are seen after it burned to the ground on December 5.
The remains of a home are seen after it burned to the ground on December 5. Photo:Reuters
The Thomas Fire viewed from downtown Santa Paula.
The Thomas Fire viewed from downtown Santa Paula. Photo:Reuters
Ventura policemen put out spot fires with their boots while checking a burning neighborhood.
Ventura policemen put out spot fires with their boots while checking a burning neighborhood. Photo:Reuters
Strong eastern winds pushed the fire toward the cities of Santa Paula and Ventura, where about 140,000 people live, county officials said.
Strong eastern winds pushed the fire toward the cities of Santa Paula and Ventura, where about 140,000 people live, county officials said. Photo:Reuters
A fire crew passes a burning home.
A fire crew passes a burning home. Photo:Reuters
Farm animals try to keep away from the flames after an early-morning Creek Fire broke out in the Kagel Canyon area in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles,.
Farm animals try to keep away from the flames after an early-morning Creek Fire broke out in the Kagel Canyon area in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles,. Photo:Reuters
#PrayForSouthernCali: Some resorted to prayer as a means to cope with the devastating effects of the fire.
#PrayForSouthernCali: Some resorted to prayer as a means to cope with the devastating effects of the fire. Photo:Reuters
An aerial view of the Thomas Fire that was snapped by a social-media user.
An aerial view of the Thomas Fire that was snapped by a social-media user. Photo:Twitter / Jamers818
The smoke and devastation could be seen from as far as Camarillo, Santa Barbara and surrounding cities.
The smoke and devastation could be seen from as far as Camarillo, Santa Barbara and surrounding cities. Photo:VCSO
"The fight continues on the #ThomasFire. Ventura Copter 7, Copter 8 & Santa Barbara 308 have been making drops all night. "
"The fight continues on the #ThomasFire. Ventura Copter 7, Copter 8 & Santa Barbara 308 have been making drops all night. " Photo:Ventura County Air Unit
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