200,000 people flee Southern California as wildfires continue to rage

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Firefighters monitor a section of the Thomas Fire along the 101 freeway on December 7, 2017 north of Ventura, California. (AFP Photo)
Firefighters monitor a section of the Thomas Fire along the 101 freeway on December 7, 2017 north of Ventura, California. (AFP Photo)

Hundreds of Los Angeles area schools shut their doors on Thursday as raging wildfires wreaked havoc on Southern California, forcing about 200,000 people to flee and destroying hundreds of houses.

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.

Dozens of schools were also closed in neighboring Ventura County, where the largest of the area blazes, the Thomas Fire, has charred more than 95,000 acres. The school district, with nearly 17,000 students, said it hoped to reopen on Monday.

"But that will only happen if a number of factors are in place that will guarantee the health and safety of our students and staff," Ventura Unified School District Superintendent Dave Creswell said in a statement.

Dry Santa Ana winds, blowing westward from the California desert, could reach 75 miles per hour (130 km per hour) on Thursday. "Strong winds overnight creating extreme fire danger," said an alert sent by the countrywide emergency system in Los Angeles.

Video and photographs on social media showed flame-covered hillsides along busy roadways on Wednesday as commuters slowly made their way to work or home, rows of houses reduced to ash and firefighters spraying water on walls of fire as they tried to save houses.

The Thomas Fire continued its westward push on Thursday, forcing a few hundred Santa Barbara County residents to be evacuated and the closing of coastal Highway 101 north of Ventura city.

In the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the Creek Fire destroyed at least 30 homes, blackened more than 12,000 acres (4,800 hectares) and forced the evacuation of 2,500 homes and a convalescent center.

Another blaze, the Rye Fire, threatened more than 5,000 homes and structures northwest of Los Angeles.

The Skirball Fire in Los Angeles has forced hundreds of residents in the wooded hills near the affluent Bel-Air neighborhood to evacuate and charred more than 150 acres (60 hectares).

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. "We believe the winery and house are still intact."

"These are days that break your heart," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Wednesday during a news conference. "These are also days that show the resilience of our city."

No civilian casualties or fatalities have been reported. Three firefighters were injured and hospitalized in stable condition, the Los Angeles Fire Department said.

The Thomas Fire has destroyed more than 150 homes and threatened thousands more in Ventura.

Additional evacuations were called for late Wednesday in the Ventura area, where 50,000 people had already fled their homes over the last three days.

The flames also prompted the evacuation of literally thousands of pets, not only dogs and cats but horses, goats, alpacas and other large livestock.

The edges of both Los Angeles and Ventura are dotted with horse-keeping properties, and when flames roared in people barely had time to get their animals to their own evacuation centers.

"We're full, we've taken in over 450 horses and four goats," Heidi Allyn, a stable assistant at the sprawling Los Angeles Equestrian Center, said Wednesday.

Some people fled so quickly that they led their frightened horses down smoke-filled, traffic-choked streets. Allyn said a few horses suffered burns and were taken to a veterinary facility at the Ventura County Fairgrounds for treatment.

Nearly 30 horses didn't make it out of a ranch in Los Angeles' semi-rural Sunland-Tujunga area and died there.

Firefighters will do what they can to help any animals separated from their owners, said Chris Harvey, a spokesman for the crews fighting the Ventura blaze.

They'll leave food out for dogs and cats that flee the flames on their own, hoping they'll return later looking for their owners. They also help large animals like horses when they can.

"Sometimes they're able to feed livestock or try and call in to get them evacuated if they can do so without having to suspend their firefighting operations," he said.

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