Fears for 450 horses cut loose at thoroughbred training facility near San Diego. Strong desert winds raise prospect of wildfires at Christmas
This article titled “California wildfires: 120,000 forced to flee as blazes tear through south of state” was written by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles and Haroon Siddique, for The Guardian on Friday 8th December 2017 18.55 UTC
Wildfires driven by strong desert winds continue to rage through southern California, destroying hundreds of buildings and forcing 120,000 people to flee a phenomenon that could last until Christmas.
Donald Trump approved California’s request for an emergency declaration on Friday, speeding federal help to firefighters and communities who are battling multiple blazes with fleets of aircraft, fire engines and garden hoses.
“It’s wind event after wind event,” said Stan Ziegler, a fire captain in Ventura County, which has been ravaged by the most destructive blaze, the Thomas fire. The blaze has grown to 180 sq miles (466 sq km) and destroyed 430 buildings since it broke out on Monday.
Dry, desert winds from the east known as Santa Anas, which fanned the flames, gave way to a respite of cooler onshore winds, then the easterlies roared back, said Ziegler.
Fire officials said they could be battling blazes for several more weeks because of the speed at which the wind is causing them to spread, raising the highly unusual prospect of a Christmas of wildfires, which in California traditionally end in November.
Swaths of Los Angeles have choked on air filled with ash and smoke, prompting hundreds of schools to close. Along the coast between Ventura and Santa Barbara tiny beach communities were under siege as fires leapt from steep hillsides across US highway 101.
The massive blaze threatened Ojai, a scenic mountain town of 7,000 people nicknamed Shangri-La and known for its boutique hotels and spiritual retreats.
Plumes of smoke have extended more than 1,000 miles into the Pacific.
Erratic wind patterns raise the danger, said the Ventura County fire department public information officer, Scott Quirarte. “Firefighters will need to pay attention to the winds and the type of terrain they’re on.”
In Sylmar on the northern fringes of Los Angeles, Patricia Padilla, whose family own a ranch and live up the hill from it, said they were awakened by flames from the Creek fire and told to leave.
“All I could think about was the horses, the horses, the horses. And they were like: ‘Get out, get out, get out,’” she told the LA Times. “The structures can get rebuilt, but the lives of the horses can’t … That’s my biggest heartbreak.” The family lost 29 horses.
Photograph: Irfan Khan/LA Times via Getty Images
Another blaze, which broke out north of San Diego on Thursday, tore through a training centre for hundreds of elite thoroughbred racehorses in San Diego, forcing them to run for their lives. It is feared many did not make it.
The fire north of San Diego began next to state highway 76 with strong winds carrying it across six lanes to the other side. It exceeded six sq miles within hours and burned dozens of houses as it tore through the tightly packed Rancho Monserate Country Club.
Rows of trailer homes in a retirement community were among the buildings engulfed by flames, leaving charred and mangled metal. Three people were burned while escaping the fire, said Capt Nick Schuler of the California department of forestry and fire protection.
As the flames approached the elite San Luis Rey Downs training facility for thoroughbreds, many of the more than 450 horses were cut loose to prevent them from being trapped in their stables if barns caught fire, said Mac McBride of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
Herds of horses galloped past flaming palm trees in their chaotic escape. A horse trainer, Scott Hansen, said some of his 30 horses at the facility had died.
“I don’t know how many are living and how many are dead,” he said. “I guess I’ll have to figure that out in the morning.”
It was not yet clear how many horses had died but all of Friday’s races at Los Alamitos racecourse were cancelled as the racing community mourned.
Schools and casinos were being used as shelters. Cynthia Olvera, 20, took refuge at Fallbrook high school but was moved to another shelter as the flames approached the building.
She said she had been at her Bonsall home with her younger sister and nephew when her father called from the family nursery to say the fire had reached the gate of their sprawling property.
After starting to drive away, the family turned around to recover forgotten personal documents but it was too late. Trees were ablaze and flames were within 10ft (3 metres) of the house. “I didn’t think it would move that fast,” she said.
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