Much of California in the United States was on high alert on Friday as wind-driven wildfires tore through the state’s south, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and destroying multiple structures and homes.
Fire officials said an 89-year-old woman died in Calimesa, about 115 kilometres (70 miles) east of Los Angeles, when fire swept through a trailer park overnight after the driver of a dustcart that caught fire dumped his burning load nearby.
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Another man in his 50s died on Thursday night from cardiac arrest as he spoke with firefighters battling the so-called Saddleridge brush fire in the San Fernando Valley, about 32km (20 miles) north of downtown Los Angeles, fire officials said.
That fire grew rapidly, prompting evacuation orders for more than 100,000 people.
Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said the blaze that started late on Thursday in the city of Sylmar was being fuelled by dry conditions and high winds known as the Santa Ana winds.
“This is a very dynamic fire, Terrazas told a news conference.
“Do not wait to leave,” he urged residents. “If we ask you to evacuate, please evacuate.”
He said some 1,000 firefighters were fighting the blaze that was 13 percent contained by early afternoon and had forced the shutdown of several major highways. The metro line in the area was also shut as were schools and businesses.
Red flag warnings
At least 25 buildings have been destroyed by the blaze, the cause of which has not been determined.
“We’ve calculated that the fire is moving at a rate of 800 acres [325 hectares] per hour,” Terrazas said, adding that it would probably take days to get it under control.
Some 200 firefighters, water-dropping helicopters and firefighting aeroplanes were meanwhile battling several blazes, including the one that tore through the trailer park in Riverside County.
There were no immediate reports of injuries, but authorities ordered some homes in the area be evacuated.
The National Weather Service said it expects the high winds fanning the flames to subside, making it easier for firefighters to get the situation under control.
A red flag warning – which indicates ripe conditions for wildfires – remains in effect through Saturday.
“That seems to be the new normal in California,” lamented Sylmar resident Oscar Mancillas, as he helplessly watched the flames spread in the hillside near his home.
“I mean the vegetation is so dry … but we’re kind of lucky because it didn’t grow back from the last fire,” he told AFP news agency.
“In California, you have to be earthquake ready and you have to be fire ready … and for those of us who have a family, it’s a little daunting sometimes.”
The wildfires in the south erupted as California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), implemented rolling power blackouts that affected some two million people in northern California this week.
About 312,000 customers remained in the dark on Friday as a result of the shutoffs designed to reduce the threat of wildfire that can be sparked by lines downed in strong winds.
Many schools and universities were also closed in northern parts of the state as people stocked up on gasoline, water, batteries and other basics, with frustration mounting at the blackouts condemned by some as “third world”.
“We’re seeing a scale and scope of something that no state in the 21st century should experience,” Governor Gavin Newsom said on Thursday, blaming decades of what he called neglect and mismanagement by PG&E.
“This is not, from my perspective, a climate change story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement over the course of decades,” Newsom said. “Neglect, a desire to advance not public safety but profits.”
PG&E has defended the outages as necessary for safety reasons and has said it will take days before power is restored to all customers as inspections must be conducted on all power lines and equipment before the lights can be turned back on.
“This is not how we want to serve you but blackouts can happen again,” Bill Johnson, the CEO of the company said on Thursday.
Last November, PG&E’s faulty power lines were determined to have sparked the deadliest wildfire in the state’s modern history, which killed 86 and destroyed the town of Paradise.