California wildfire
An aircraft drops retardant over burning embers and small fires on top of a mountain in Fillmore, Calif., on December 8, 2017. ires in the Los Angeles area and new outbreaks near San Diego. / AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWNFREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_V02EM
FREDERIC J. BROWN, AFP/Getty Images

Firefighters battling a half-dozen fires that have raged in Southern California this week braced Saturday for a weekend of high winds that could trigger more rapid or dramatic increases in wildfire activity in the dry, tinder-box conditions.

The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for parts of San Diego county, with the strongest winds expected in the mountains and inland valleys late Saturday through Sunday morning. An army of firefighters was battling the blazes, and began seeing some victories Saturday morning: Some evacuations for the Ventura and Santa Barbara County areas were lifted. 

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At the same time, other evacuations were being ordered in Ventura County as the Thomas Fire continued burning. Firefighters said much now depends on how much longer the Santa Ana winds blow. Vegetation across southern California is bone dry, there’s been hardly any rainfall and winds were expected to gusts up to 40 mph Saturday and up to 50 mph Sunday in the hard-hit Los Angeles and Ventura areas, the National Weather Service said.

While Santa Ana winds like this are common in California's fall, this windstorm has lasted unusually long, driving wildfires that have killed one person, scorched more than 270 square miles since Monday, destroyed around 800 buildings, killed scores of horses in San Diego county and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

“The crews were trying to stay out ahead of this as quickly as they could,” said Capt. Kendal Bortisser of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention. “As we know, when a tornado hits the Midwest, there’s no stopping it. When a hurricane hits the East Coast, there’s no stopping it. When Santa Ana winds come in, there’s no stopping them.”

The initial wildfires, focused largely on Los Angeles and Ventura counties, continued to sweep the area, with the Thomas Fire, which has scorched 148,000 acres in Ventura County, only 15% contained. In Los Angeles County, the Rye Fire, which has burned 6,000 acres, is 50% contained and the Creek Fire, which has burned 15,619 acres, is 70% contained.

As of Saturday afternoon, the Thomas Fire was more than 230 square miles, about the same size as Chicago. 

California widlfire
A firefighter keeps an eye on a burning fire off Highway 33 north of Ojai, California on December 8, 2017.
Frederic J Brown, AFP/Getty Images

Farther south, in San Diego County, the newest wildfire — dubbed Lilac — erupted Thursday. It has burned 4,100 acres and is 15% contained.

As winds as high as 88 mph whipped through the county, the flames tore through Fallbrook, the self-proclaimed “Avocado Capital of the World" and hit the nearby town of Bonsall, where about 30 to 40 elite thoroughbreds perished when the fires swept into barns at the San Luis Rey Training Facility.

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Pandemonium broke out as hundreds of horses were set free to prevent them from burning in their stables. They nearly stampeded trainer Kim Marrs as she rescued a horse named Spirit World.

Marrs said it was devastating to see the remains of once regal animals.

“It’s pretty apocalyptic,” she said. “When you touch them it’s just ash.”

 

Only one fatality has been attributed to the fires, a 70-year-old woman found dead in a wrecked car on a designated evacuation route in the small city of Santa Paula.

Regional air-quality officials issued several smoke advisories, warning people with respiratory illnesses or heart disease — and also pregnant women, children and the elderly — to stay indoors. Hundreds of schools shut down.

Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky tweeted photos of the conflagrations from the International Space Station, showing thick clouds of brown-white smoke blanketing Southern California, from the mountains to the ocean.

Contributing: Associated Press