SANTA PAULA: A thousand firefighters were battling a wind-whipped brush fire in southern California on Tuesday (Dec 5) that has left at least one person dead, sent thousands fleeing, and destroyed more than 150 homes and businesses.
The Ventura County Fire Department said more than 27,000 people had been told to evacuate their homes as the fast-moving fire in the coastal county north of Los Angeles grew to 18,200 hectares.
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over the area, announcing: "This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly.
"It's critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so."
Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen told a news conference that the prospects for containment depended on improving weather conditions.
"Really, Mother Nature is going to decide when we have the ability to put it out," he said.
The National Weather Service said easterly Santa Ana winds fueling the fire had registered gusts of up to 80 kilometres per hour - predicting they could hit upwards of 80 miles per hour into the afternoon.
"The fire is pushing quickly towards the city of Ventura," Lorenzen said, and has reached the eastern city limits. The oceanside city has a population of around 100,000.
The fire chief said one death had been reported. "As the individual was evacuating from the fire, the car overturned," he said.
Authorities said more than 1,000 firefighters were currently fighting the "Thomas Fire" - a blaze captured in apocalyptic images with flames sometimes taking on the appearance of a volcanic eruption.
"Fixed wing aircraft and helicopters are expected to attack the fire at daybreak," the Ventura County website said.
Two other large blazes broke out Tuesday - the Creek Fire, which has so far swallowed around 4,500 hectares and the more contained Rye fire, spread over 1,000 acres.
The NWS put a "red flag" warning into effect for much of Los Angeles and Ventura counties through Thursday, saying the coming days would likely see "the strongest and longest duration Santa Ana wind event we have seen so far this season."
DEADLIEST YEAR IN WILDFIRES
Close to 1,000 firefighters were mobilised by Tuesday to fight the inferno which broke out Monday night near Highway 150 before spreading to the city of Santa Paula.
Captain Scott Quirate, a local fire chief, told local TV stations that he had to call his daughter at dawn to tell her that her apartment had gone up in flames.
The Southern California Edison utility company said 180,000 customers in Ventura County and 83,000 in Santa Barbara County were without power.
Lorenzen said the fire was consuming dry brush.
"It's heavy brush, brush that hasn't burned in 15 to 20 years," he said.
"And 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."
Authorities warned of widespread smoke and limited visibility, urging residents in impacted areas to run their air conditioners and keep outside windows and doors closed to prevent smoke from entering.
This has been California's deadliest year ever for wildfires. More than 40 people died in the state's wine-producing country in fires in October.