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PHOTOS: Massive Thomas wildfire turns Southern California into a hellscape

by Alex Lubben
Dec 5 2017, 12:16pm

Fire engulfed a 15-square-mile area of Southern California early Tuesday, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

Dubbed the Thomas Fire, the wind-whipped flames spread from about 50 acres to 45,000 in only a matter of hours, according to an early-morning update from the Ventura County Fire Department. By early Tuesday morning, it had made its way into the Ventura city limits, ravaging structures in the coastal town about 65 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

The fire started around 6 p.m. Monday evening in the foothills near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, a popular hiking destination, local officials told the Los Angeles Times. It grew rapidly, consuming vegetation that hadn’t burned in decades.

This fire, and another one, called the Creek fire, that raged Tuesday in Sylmar, a neighborhood within the Los Angeles city limits, were encroaching on Metropolitan Los Angeles, one of the most populated regions in the U.S.

There were no confirmed deaths from the fire as of early Tuesday, though conflicting reports from officials claimed that either a person or a dog had been killed in a car accident while evacuating overnight.

Local officials expressed doubt that they’ll be able to get the fire under control without some help from the weather. “The prospects for containment are not good,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said during a pre-dawn press conference. “Really, Mother Nature is going to decide.”

View from the Thomas Fire over Santa Paula, Los Angeles, USA - 05 Dec 2017 (Rex Features via AP Images)

Orange smoke billowed into the sky above Ventura, and flames could be seen from miles away Homes and cars were charred and left smoldering as residents of Ventura fled to safer ground.

Downtown is darkened by a power outage with smoke rising in the distance as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres in Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. (REUTERS/David McNew)

The 2017 fire season in California has been one of the deadliest on record, with at least 43 people killed before the Thomas Fire broke out.

A home burns as strong winds push the Thomas Fire across thousands of acres near Santa Paula, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. (REUTERS/David McNew)

7,700 households were told to evacuate as the fire approached.

A firefighter fights a wildfire protecting a house's backyard, as strong winds carry a wildfire to Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

“It’s a house that was built with love,” Karen Kwan-Holt told the Los Angeles Times as she watched the tree between her neighbor’s house and her own, which her husband had built and where she’d lived with her children for 17 years in Ventura, catch fire. “We’re just hoping for the best.”

Firefighters fight a wildfire protecting a home's backyard, as strong winds carry a wildfire to Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

“It’s always difficult and somewhat dangerous to fly at night, so depending on different conditions and the geographic challenges is how they evaluate whether or not they can operate at night,” Jason Hodge, Ventura County firefighter, told the Los Angeles Times.

A helicopter makes a night water drop to help protect a home, as strong winds carry a wildfire into Ventura, California, U.S., December 5, 2017. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

The fire was able to spread so quickly partially due of the continued drought in Southern California — and droughts are only expected to get worse as climate change takes its course. A new study suggests that the region will get 15 percent less rainfall over the course of the next 20 to 30 years.