Be 'ready to GO!' Southern California warns residents as fires rage

FARIA BEACH/LILAC, Calif., Dec 7 (Reuters) - Fanned by gusting winds, wildfires raged in densely populated Southern California for a fourth day on Thursday, with a new blaze north of San Diego exploding in size in just a few hours and dangerous conditions forecast until Sunday.

The blazes destroyed hundreds of houses and forced many Los Angeles-area schools to close. Flames hopscotched over highways and railroad tracks, and residents rushed to evacuate their homes with only minutes' warning, some leaving behind holiday gifts. People feared for the safety of animals from cats to llamas.

About 200,000 residents were evacuated from their homes at one point, though some were due to return on Thursday evening.

Authorities said the four biggest fires -- ranging from Los Angeles up the Pacific coast to Santa Barbara County -- were whipped up by the region's notorious westward Santa Ana winds that could reach hurricane strength.

RELATED: Aerial images of Ventura County, California wildfire

15 PHOTOS
Aerial images of Ventura County, California wildfire
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Aerial images of Ventura County, California wildfire
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: View of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: Dozens of homes destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: Dozens of homes destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: Homes burned to the ground in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: A home is fully involved in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: A home is fully involved in fire and others destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: A home is fully involved in fire and others destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: Dozens of homes destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: View of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: Dozens of homes destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SYLMAR, CA, DECEMBER 5: Flames encroach on structures in the hills above Sylmar fire from helicopter in Los Angeles County, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2017. (Photo by Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MALIBU, CA - FEBRUARY 25: LA County Fire helicopters make water drops to halt forward progress of the10 acre brush fire called the Mulholland Fire in the western Malibu hills near the Ventura County line Thursday morning as hand crews work to cut a control line around the blaze. A fire crew inmate suffered major injuries from fallng rock while battling the fire and was airlifted to UCLA Medical Center. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MALIBU, CA - FEBRUARY 25: LA County Fire helicopters make water drops to halt forward progress of the10 acre brush fire called the Mulholland Fire in the western Malibu hills near the Ventura County line Thursday morning as hand crews work to cut a control line around the blaze. A fire crew inmate suffered major injuries from fallng rock while battling the fire and was airlifted to UCLA Medical Center. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA COUNTY, CA - DECEMBER 5: Dozens of homes destroyed in view of the Thomas fire from helicopter in on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura County, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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The winds blow in hot and dry from the California desert, and the state CAL FIRE agency said gusty winds and extremely low humidity would continue through Sunday.

"Prepare now to ensure if evacuated you and your family are ready to GO!" CAL FIRE said on Twitter.

The Thomas Fire northwest of Los Angeles grew to 115,000 acres (46,540 hectares) from 96,000 acres (38,850 hectares) and destroyed 439 structures, officials said. More than 2,600 firefighters from as far away as Portland, Oregon, and Nevada were battling the blaze, which was 5-percent contained.

North of San Diego, another blaze called the Lilac Fire grew from 10 acres to 2,500 acres (1,011 hectares) in just a few hours on Thursday, CAL FIRE said, prompting Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency for San Diego County.

The blaze destroyed 20 structures and prompted evacuations and road closures. Propane tanks under several houses exploded from the heat, sounding like bombs, according to a Reuters photographer at the scene.

The other fires, which broke out on Monday and Tuesday, have reached into the wealthy enclave of Bel-Air on Los Angeles' West Side. Some major highways in the densely populated area were intermittently closed.

Firefighters and helicopters sprayed and dumped bucketloads of water to try to contain the flames against a hellish backdrop of flaming mountains and walls of smoke.

No civilian casualties or fatalities have been reported from the blazes but three firefighters were injured, the Los Angeles Fire Department said.

In the seaside enclave of Faria Beach, caught between burning mountains and the Pacific Ocean, northwest of Ventura, fires spread down the smoking hills. Flames jumped the heavily used U.S. 101 highway and headed toward clusters of beach houses. Firefighters lined up along a railroad track, the last barrier from the flames.

Surrounded by strong winds and smoke, resident Songsri Kesonchampa aimed a garden hose at a large pine tree between her Faria Beach house and the fire, attempting to fend off disaster.

"If this tree catches fire, the strong wind will blow the flames towards my house. I need to protect this tree," she said.

As she spoke, a sheriff's car drove by, ordering residents to evacuate. "The fire is here. You must evacuate your homes right now," an officer said over the loudspeaker.

In the coastal city of Ventura, resident Maurice Shimabuku said his friends had told him to evacuate but he was staying put for now, feeling safe because he was near the Pacific Ocean. "I know I can just run back out that way, so I am relatively safe," he said. "I even have a surfboard and a wetsuit in my backyard right now, if I need to paddle away."

Heavy smoke made breathing hazardous in some areas, and residents were urged to stay inside. Ventura County authorities said air pollution measures in the Ojai Valley were "off the charts."

The Los Angeles Police Department tweeted, "LAPD Working to Save Every Californian, Pets Included" along with a photo of a police officer in a respirator rescuing a cat. The Los Angeles County animal shelter said it was hosting 184 pets including llamas, donkeys and horses while reports said 29 horses were burned to death on Tuesday at a ranch in the Sylmar neighborhood of Los Angeles.

RELATED: Faces of those impacted by the California wildfire

17 PHOTOS
Faces of those impacted and battling the Ventura County, California wildfire
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Faces of those impacted and battling the Ventura County, California wildfire
SHADOW HILLS, CA - DECEMBER 05:Judy Hofmann-Sanders hugs a firefighter on McBroom Street in Shadow Hills, where the Creek fire destroyed several homes. (Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 05: Ventura County Firefighter Aaron Cohen catches his breath after fighting to save multi-million dollar homes along Cobblestone Drive near Foothill Road and North Victoria Avenue Tuesday after a fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept into Ventura destroying many homes early Tuesday, burning over 45,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing 27,000 people to evacuate. 'We chased the fire from Santa Paula all the way into Ventura through the night,' Cohen said. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SYLMAR, CA - DECEMBER 5:A firefighter gets into position to battle the Creek Fire as a house is engulfed in flames near the intersection of Johanna Avenue and McBroom Street in Shadow Hills on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. The fire started at about 3:42 a.m. in the area of Gold Creek and Little Tujunga roads and has burned more than 11,000 acres. (Photo by Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SHADOW HILLS, CA - DECEMBER 05:Judy Hofmann-Sanders talks on the phone as her home is consumed by the Creek fire along McBroom Street in Shadow Hills. (Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 05: Chino Valley Fire Engineer Chris Calvert works the engine as Firefighters fight to save multi-million dollar homes along Cobblestone Drive near Foothill Road and North Victoria Avenue Tuesday midday after a fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept into Ventura destroying many homes early Tuesday, burning over 45,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing 27,000 people to evacuate. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 05: Amanda Leon and husband Johnny Leon watch as Firefighters fight to save multi-million dollar homes along Cobblestone Drive near Foothill Road and North Victoria Avenue Tuesday midday after a fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept into Ventura destroying many homes early Tuesday, burning over 45,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing 27,000 people to evacuate. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Local residents react as numerous homes burn on a hillside during a wind driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Local residents watch a home burn on a hillside during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A Ventura police officer squints his eyes in the smoke after using his fire extinguisher to put out a spot fire as strong winds carry a wildfire into Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Ventura policemen leave a neighborhood after checking a home as strong winds carry a wildfire into Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Firefighters battle flames from a Santa Ana wind-driven brush fire called the Thomas Fire in Santa Paula, California, December 4, 2017. Photo taken December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Gene Blevins
VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 05: Tammy Hanna breaks into tears as she is hugged by husband Antoine as they are relieved their home was saved by Firefighters along Cobblestone Drive near Foothill Road and North Victoria Avenue Tuesday after a fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept into Ventura destroying many homes early Tuesday, burning over 45,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing 27,000 people to evacuate. 'We chased the fire from Santa Paula all the way into Ventura through the night,' Cohen said. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 05: Wearing his Christmas garb Justin Ekback watches as Firefighters fight to save multi-million dollar homes along Cobblestone Drive near Foothill Road and North Victoria Avenue Tuesday midday after a fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept into Ventura destroying many homes early Tuesday, burning over 45,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing 27,000 people to evacuate. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SHADOW HILLS, CA DECEMBER 05, 2017 -- Judy Hofmann-Sanders can only watch as her home is consumed by the Creek fire along McBroom Street in Shadow Hills. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Local residents pass by a burning house during the Thomas wildfire in Ventura, California, on December 5, 2017. Firefighters battled a wind-whipped brush fire in southern California that has left at least one person dead, destroyed more than 150 homes and businesses and forced tens of thousands to flee. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Local residents Aaron Cohen hugs Tammy Hanna during the Thomas wildfire in Ventura, California on December 5, 2017. Firefighters battled a wind-whipped brush fire in southern California that has left at least one person dead, destroyed more than 150 homes and businesses and forced tens of thousands to flee. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Skirball Fire in Los Angeles has forced hundreds of residents in the wooded hills near the Bel-Air neighborhood to evacuate and charred more than 475 acres (192 hectares).

Jeremy Broekman was camped out at his in-laws' house in Sherman Oaks after evacuating his family of five early on Wednesday from their home a mile (1.6 km) away from the Skirball fire.

Broekman, who runs a public relations firm from his home office, had just an hour to get his family out of the house, grabbing hard drives and Pokemon cards and leaving behind a pile of Hannukah presents. He spent Thursday trying to work and checking the news while also caring for his three children, whose schools were closed because of the fire.

"Although we always say we can work remotely with the use of a laptop, when you are displaced like this you are emotionally unbalanced," he said.

Skirball threatened media magnate Rupert Murdoch's Moraga Estate winery. The property was evacuated, with possible damage to some buildings, Murdoch said in a statement, but "We believe the winery and house are still intact."

CLASSES CANCELED

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country's second largest with more than 640,000 students, said it closed at least 265 of its nearly 1,100 schools. The University of California Santa Barbara canceled classes as well.

Utilities cut power to customers in some mountain communities northeast of San Diego and east of Los Angeles to lessen fire danger. The outage could last several days.

The fires are the second outbreak to ravage parts of California this autumn. The celebrated wine country in the northern part of the state was hit by wind-driven wildfires in October that killed at least 43 people, forced some 10,000 to flee their homes and consumed at least 245,000 acres (9,900 hectares) north of the San Francisco Bay area.

The California Department of Insurance said the northern California blazes caused insured losses of more than $9 billion.

(Reporting by Ben Gruber in Faria Beach, California and Mike Blake in Lilac, California; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Nichola Groom in Los Angeles, Peter Szekely in New York and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, James Dalgleish and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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