With weary firefighters continuing their assault on several major wildfires wreaking devastation across Southern California, two new blazes fired up Thursday, adding to the region's smoke-filled misery.
Two people were burned in one new hot spot, known as the Lilac Fire, which was about 45 miles north of San Diego. Officials didn't release the nature of the injuries to the burn victims nor give their conditions.
NEW: 141,000 acres burned in six large wildfires in California
"Honestly, the firefighters are taking a beating," official says
The 3,000-acre fire is moving at an "extremely rapid rate," and burning west toward the Vista and Oceanside communities, officials said.
A total of 20 structures were destroyed, according to Cal Fire. Many of those were mobile homes in a community next to where the fire started, said Ron Lane, the deputy chief administrative officer for San Diego County.
To the north in Ventura County, the numbers were much more ominous. The four-day old Thomas Fire had burned 115,000 acres and destroyed 439 buildings, damaging 85 others.
Another new fire, just to the north of the Lilac Fire, had consumed 300 acres. That blaze, called the Liberty Fire, is 10% contained.
The wildfires are testing the stamina of firefighters and military personnel, who have been laboring almost nonstop. On top of exhaustion from the long hours, they're also trying to stave off the effects of smoke inhalation and the airborne embers irritating their eyes.
"Honestly, the firefighters are taking a beating, but we have to acknowledge the residents because they're taking a beating, too, but they're cooperating with our orders," Thomas Kruschke, spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department, said earlier.
The state National Guard's 146th Airlift Wing out of Oxnard has also joined the fight, even though roughly 50 of the National Guardsmen involved had to be evacuated themselves, said spokeswoman Maj. Kimberly Holman. Three lost their homes in the blazes, she said.
The fires have pushed 110,000 Californians from their homes. Compounding problems Thursday were dry weather and merciless winds, with gusts predicted to reach the strength of a Category 1 hurricane in mountainous areas.
About 5,500 firefighters -- almost half of them assigned to the massive Thomas Fire alone -- have been fighting the blazes as they race across hillsides and through neighborhoods, officials said. Officials have shut down hundreds of schools spanning at least 16 districts.
It could go down as one of the most destructive fires in state history, and at one point, spread over 31,000 acres in the span of about nine hours -- roughly an acre a second. At that rate, it would have consumed New York's Central Park in about 15 minutes. The plume from the fire stretches 1,000 miles into the Pacific Ocean.
The fire is the most destructive ever in December (due to the number of buildings destroyed), according to Cal Fire records posted online.
- New measures: Fire officials said Thursday brought a historic fire danger score and prompted them to upgrade their color-coding system to include purple for the first time.
- Areas of concern: Firefighters said they are keeping the Skirball Fire at bay but worry it will jump west of Interstate 405.
- Good news, bad news: The Creek Fire, which is burning north of the San Fernando Valley in the Angeles Forest, grew to about 15,300 acres but containment (20%) also increased, Cal Fire said.
- Sacramento response: California Gov. Jerry Brown has proclaimed an emergency for San Diego County due to the effects of the Lilac Fire, freeing state resources such as the National Guard to support response efforts.
- Able to return home: Evacuees from the Skirball Fire were told they would be allowed back into their neighborhoods Thursday night.
'My little fire baby'
Wednesday was bittersweet for Eric Rosenberg, with his sadness at seeing his neighbors' homes destroyed punctuated by a moment of pure joy: His wife gave birth to a healthy daughter, Mila.
As he filmed the "heartbreaking" scene in his Ventura neighborhood, where six neighbors' homes had been reduced to rubble, he explained he had to rush back to the hospital to see his wife and newborn.
"My little fire baby decided today was the day," he said.
On Thursday, he said his wife and child were doing well, and his home had survived the fire.
A neighbor knocked on his door early Tuesday morning and told him the fire was getting close.
"I walked out the front door, and it looked like a war zone," Rosenberg said.
Police drove through the neighborhood announcing a mandatory evacuation around 4:30 a.m., he said. The family's car was already packed with hospital bags, changes of clothes, laptops, photos, passports, dog food and important financial documents.
"Last trip back inside I grabbed my ketubah off the wall and headed out," he said, using the Hebrew word for a wedding contract.
On Thursday, Rosenberg and his wife were staying with his in-laws in Carpinteria, about 25 minutes from Ventura, and "We can see the billowing smoke clouds in the distance," he said.
Purple is the new red
The battle to contain the blaze is especially difficult on the Santa Barbara-Ventura County line, where the terrain is steep and rugged, said Kruschke, the Ventura County fire official. Fire officials hope to get as many as a dozen helicopters in the air Thursday, but the winds have been playing havoc on the choppers and fixed-wing aircraft, he said.
Thursday afternoon, in the eerie, sepia-colored haze, firefighters could be seen setting a back fire on the northwest flank of the Thomas Fire. Well before sundown, the back fires added more smoke but seemed to help hold a fire line built in a canyon on the county line.
The Thomas Fire grew significantly Thursday to about 180 square miles and was only 5% contained. The Creek Fire in Los Angeles County is about 20% contained. The Rye Fire in Santa Clarita is holding at 7,000 acres, with 25% containment, while the Skirball Fire has burned about 475 acres and is 20% contained.
As of Thursday, the Thomas Fire had destroyed 73 residences, three commercial structures and 15 outbuildings, Cal Fire said, emphasizing that the numbers are likely to rise once officials are in a better position to assess the damage.