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Southern California Fires Surpass 140,000 Acres As Santa Ana Winds Drive Flames

Updated at 10 p.m. ET

Driven by fierce Santa Ana winds, four intense fires near Los Angeles grew to engulf more than 115,000 acres Thursday, and officials say residents should continue to expect dangerous fire conditions, as both strong winds and very dry conditions persist.

"Until the wind stops blowing, there's really not a lot we can do as far as controlling the perimeter," Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said as quoted by the Los Angeles Times. "This is a fight we're going to be fighting probably for a couple of weeks."

Lorenzen has more than 2500 firefighters battling the largest blaze, the Thomas Fire, which has exploded to 115,000 acres since it was started earlier this week. Containment of that fire is now at five percent.

Another 3,000 firefighters have been working to control the other fires in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties.

The Lilac Fire in San Diego county started Thursday morning around 11:15 a.m. PT and grew to 3,000 acres by mid-afternoon. The fire is concentrated in a rural part of northern San Diego county near Camp Pendleton. There is a concerted effort to evacuate not just people, but also horses and livestock, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The San Diego county fire has destroyed 20 structures and threaten 2,000 more.

The Creek Fire in the San Fernando Valley has burned more than 15,000 acres and is 20 percent contained. The smaller Rye Fire to the north has scorched 7,000 acres and is 25 percent contained.

Until now, there are no known human casualties directly related to the many fires. However, a woman was found dead early Thursday morning after a car crash in an area evacuated for the Thomas Fire in Ventura County. The woman's name has not been released and the incident is still being investigated.

On Thursday morning, the intense heat of the Thomas fire was seen generating a pyrocumulus or flammagenitus cloud — the towering mushroom clouds that sometimes result from volcanic eruptions and other extreme activities.

Forecasters had predicted wind gusts of up to 80 mph, saying that this week would bring the worst of the seasonal Santa Ana winds. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had issued a dire "purple" warning last night, referring to the only color above red on the wind scale. But that forecast has since been downgraded to a red alert.

"New and smaller fires erupted this morning. A three-acre vegetation fire was quickly extinguished in Riverside County before it was able to spread to nearby businesses," Alex Cohen reports from member station KPCC. "In the city of Anaheim, another blaze damaged four units at a commercial building."

Cohen adds, "Roughly 200 firefighters were sent to the scene of a fire along the coast in Malibu - it was contained in an hour."

An end to the threat is still a long way away. The National Weather Service office in Los Angeles and Oxnard says it expects critical fire weather conditions to linger into Saturday.

As NPR's Kirk Siegler reported on "All Things Considered," the combination of hot winds and fast-moving fires may be part of a "new normal" in Southern California.

"The immediate culprit of the five major fires burning in Southern California right now is the Santa Ana winds: the hurricane-force gusts that blow off the Mojave desert, igniting infernos from toppled power lines or carelessly tossed cigarette butts.

"It's not unusual to get Santa Anas this late. It's just that by now the rainy season should have started.

"In an interview on Skype, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain says nothing can be considered typical anymore.'This year, we experienced our record warmest summer, and in some places record temperatures in the Autumn as well.'

"There is also a high pressure ridge stuck out over the Pacific that's blocking storms.

"Swain's research is showing that these high pressure systems are growing in frequency as a result of the warming Pacific ... one reason California is getting hotter and drier, with drier brush and longer fire seasons.

"'It's starting to appear that the likelihood of seeing these sorts of events is increasing.'"

As The Associated Press notes, "The wilder winds could easily make new fires explode too, as one did Wednesday in Los Angeles' exclusive Bel-Air section, where a fire consumed multimillion-dollar houses that give the rich and famous sweeping views of Los Angeles."

The fires have produced vivid and shocking images of massive walls of flame. But on Wednesday night, a much smaller scene of peril played out, when a man was seen getting out of his car to rescue a rabbit that was near perilous flames on Highway 1 in La Conchita. In a dramatic sequence captured by RMG News, the rabbit ran away from the man — and toward the flames — before he managed to corral it. He declined to be interviewed afterwards.

Thousands of people have been placed under evacuation orders. And making the situation more dangerous for anyone trying to flee affected areas, the fires have forced closures on arterial roads. In addition to the brief shutdown of a stretch of the 101 on Thursday, a portion of the 405 freeway was closed in both directions for a time on Wednesday.

Mary Plummer, a reporter with member station KPCC in Pasadena, tells Morning Edition that "these fires are affecting a real range of geographic areas — some very urban, some very rural. So, it's a real logistical problem."

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Los Angeles and Ventura counties, which will free up state resources.

Smoke and dust from the fires have also raised health concerns.

"Air quality reached 'hazardous' levels in Santa Barbara Thursday,' KPCC reports, citing the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District. "An air monitoring station in Goleta recorded 'very unhealthy' levels, and in Lompoc, conditions were 'unhealthy.'"

San Luis Obispo County says it was also being affected by the smoke, cautioning residents to reduce their exposure to smoke and ash.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.