California wildfires: A new blaze menaces Ventura County, but weather conditions give firefighters hope

(CNN) — A wildfire erupted overnight in the hills above communities in Southern California’s Ventura County, forcing evacuations for thousands of people even as weather conditions may be improving for firefighters battling blazes across the state.

The Maria Fire broke out Thursday night on a mountain between the communities of Santa Paula and Somis, and raced downhill, spreading to about 8,730 acres in less than 12 hours and destroying at least two homes, officials said.

“It looked like a volcano up there,” Mike Holwick, who lives in the Saticoy neighborhood west of the fire, told CNN affiliate KCAL. “I mean, everything was just all igniting, the tree lines, all the brush, it really looked like a volcano,” Holwick said. “The ash was going everywhere.”

No injuries have been reported. It is one of at least a dozen active wildfires in California, many of them stoked by furious winds in recent days.

The fire was still just under 9,000 acres Friday evening, with 1,300 firefighters from California and other western US states battling the challenging blaze, Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said at a press conference.

Although some progress has been made, “There is still cause for caution and concern,” Lorenzen said. “We’re not out of the woods yet. We still have at least 24 hours of critical fire weather ahead of us.”

By Friday evening, the Maria Fire forced evacuation orders for almost 11,000 people around the mountain, roughly 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said.

Video from CNN affiliates showed much of the mountain glowing orange in the predawn darkness Friday, looming over Santa Paula, a city of about 30,000 people.

Weather conditions still may pose a problem, but they are improving. Red flag warnings — meaning wind, humidity and other conditions are ripe for fires — have been extended until Saturday evening for parts of Southern California.

But winds should be slower — 35 mph gusts are possible, compared with gusts above 70 mph earlier in the week, forecasters say.

Weaker winds and low pre-dawn temperatures — about 53 degrees Fahrenheit in the Santa Paula area — “have reduced the (Maria Fire’s) ability to aggressively run downhill,” the Ventura County fire department said on Twitter.

A wind shift that may push the wind “deeper into the fire,” is a concern on Saturday, said National Weather Service spokesman Ryan Cattell.

Multiple fires are burning

Of the active fires burning in California, more than half broke out this week. The fires stretch across the state from Mendocino County in the north to San Diego County in the south.

The biggest fire, the Kincade Fire, has incinerated parts of the wine country in Sonoma County since last week.

Together, the fires had burned through about 100,000 acres by Thursday night.

In the Los Angeles area, firefighters are battling multiple blazes, including the Getty Fire — though all evacuations from that blaze were lifted Friday, officials said.

The Getty Fire, which began Monday west of Interstate 405, had forced the evacuations of residents including NBA star LeBron James.

Though evacuations were lifted, the 745-acre fire still was only 66% contained, the city fire department said.

About 40 miles northwest of the city, the Easy Fire broke out in Simi Valley on Wednesday. Wind gusts of hurricane force — at least 74 mph — were reported at a weather station about seven miles north of Simi Valley on Thursday.

The Easy Fire has consumed more than 1,800 acres in Ventura County and threatened 6,500 homes, officials said. The fire forced school closures and mandatory evacuations of about 30,000 people in Simi Valley, officials said. It was 80% contained.

The Ventura County Fire Department was sending resources from the Easy Fire to help contain the Maria Fire, Capt. Brian McGrath said.

East of Los Angeles, the 46 Fire has burned 300 acres, according to the Riverside County Fire Department. The blaze broke out early Thursday as the result of a police pursuit, Riverside Police said.

Two suspects in a reportedly stolen car led authorities on a 15-minute chase that ended in a field. The car’s tires were so damaged that they sparked a fire that spread quickly and destroyed three homes, police said. The two suspects were arrested, and the driver of the car will be charged with arson in addition to felony evading and car theft, authorities said.

‘Pictures I didn’t save’

The Hillside Fire destroyed at least six homes near San Bernardino on Thursday, officials have said.

Matthew Valdivia’s family home was one of those destroyed. He evacuated with his wife and children, but their home burned to the ground.

“It hurts, but this can get replaced,” he said. “You can’t replace a life. That was my priority — just my kids and making sure everybody was aware.”

One thing he regrets not grabbing: a laptop with the only copies of some baby photographs of his children.

“That’s the only thing that hurts my feelings a lot — pictures I didn’t save,” he said.

California’s biggest fire is far from contained

North of the San Francisco Bay, the week-old Kincade Fire — the state’s largest active wildfire — has destroyed nearly 78,000 acres across Sonoma County and more than 260 structures, including more than 130 single-family homes, officials said.

It was about 68% contained.

The Kincade Fire started October 23, but the cause is still under investigation.

The state has secured grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fight several fires, including the Easy Fire and blazes in San Bernardino and Riverside County, the governor’s office said. The grants allow affected local and state and agencies to apply for a 75% reimbursement of eligible fire suppression costs.

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