As winds surge, new wildfire threatens Reagan Library outside Los Angeles

Trees are seen on a ridge under a smoke-filled sunset during the Kincade fire in Geyserville, California, U.S. October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

A fast-moving wildfire threatened thousands of homes and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles on Wednesday as extraordinarily dry, heavy Santa Ana winds buffeted the region, forcing meteorologists to grasp for new language to warn of the danger.

The fire erupted in Ventura County’s Simi Valley, about 30 miles (50 km) from an earlier blaze that has been consuming the shrub-covered hills near the Getty Center museum in west Los Angeles since Monday, displacing thousands of residents from some of the city’s priciest neighborhoods.

But the Easy fire in Simi Valley quickly grew into the most consequential of several new blazes that sprung up around the region, prompting evacuations of an estimated 7,000 homes affecting about 26,000 people.

In Riverside County east of Los Angeles, a wind-driven brush fire charred 100 acres (40 hectares), forcing the evacuation of two mobile home parks, local fire officials said.

For firefighters, weather conditions could hardly be worse, as fierce winds hurled flaming embers through the air to ignite spot fires ahead of advancing flames.

“The fire outflanked us very rapidly today, pushed by those 40- to 50-mile-per-hour winds,” Ventura County Fire Department assistant chief Chad Cook told reporters. “We did experience gusts up to 65 miles per hour this morning, which made long-range spotting very, very dangerous.”

The National Weather Service issued an unprecedented “extreme red flag” warning for wildfires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties ahead of two days of intense, dry wind gusts that were forecast to reach near hurricane force.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen us use this warning,” said forecaster Marc Chenard. “It’s pretty bad.”

Statewide, the weather service issued alerts of “critical” or “extreme” fire hazard conditions covering more than 34,000 square miles (88,000 square km), encompassing some 21 million people.

HELICOPTERS AND PLANE TANKERS

The Easy fire in Simi Valley ignited just before dawn off a road named Easy Street and quickly grew to 1,300 acres (530 hectares) by late morning as it was fanned westward by Santa Ana winds.

One wall of flames raced across scrub-covered slopes at the edge of the hilltop Reagan Library, which houses the late former president’s archives and memorabilia, including the Air Force One jet he used for official travel.

Pre-positioned strike teams of firefighters, backed by water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers dumping payloads of flame retardant, swarmed the area as flames closed in on the library campus.

“We’re surrounded. It’s a scary situation. But I’m sure they’ll get on top of it,” John Heubusch, the library’s executive director, said in an on-air interview with KNX radio in Los Angeles. “It’s as close as it gets.”

By late morning, emergency crews had largely subdued flames around the library, and the fire moved off in other directions.

“Fire moved around the perimeter of the Reagan Library, and we had successful stands up there on protecting the library and the infrastructure around the facility,” Cook said.

The area around the library is home to a number of sprawling ranch properties, where residents in protective face masks coaxed nervous horses into trailers to drive them to safety.

The Santa Ana winds are a regional weather phenomenon that sends gusts westward off the desert to the east, through mountain passes and out to the Southern California coast. They are forecast to reach sustained speeds of 50 to 70 miles per hour (80 to 110 km per hour) on Wednesday and Thursday, raising the risk of sparks and embers being whipped into fresh wildfires in unburned areas.

City arson investigators say the Getty fire was likely caused by a broken tree branch blown into power lines during high winds on Monday morning. It spread, consuming 745 acres (300 hectares) by Wednesday morning, with about a quarter contained by firefighters. At least 12 homes have been destroyed.

Electricity remained cut off to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in Northern and Central California on Tuesday as a precaution by the state’s largest utility.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has accused utilities of failing to adequately modernize and safely maintain their power systems.

BLACKOUTS

In Northern California, firefighters struggled for a sixth day against the 76,000-acre (30,760-hectare) Kincade fire in Sonoma County’s wine country. High-wind forecasts prompted Pacific Gas and Electric Co <PCG.N> to impose a new round of blackouts for nearly 600,000 homes and business on Tuesday.

Early Wednesday, PG&E announced it had restored about 73 percent of the 970,000 affected in earlier shutoffs.

Utilities serving Southern California’s more urban areas have imposed smaller-scale outages.

PG&E acknowledged last week that the Kincade fire broke out near a damaged PG&E transmission tower at about the time a live high-voltage line carried by that tower malfunctioned.

The company filed for bankruptcy in January, citing $30 billion in potential liability from a series of deadly fires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018.

Citing progress made against the Kincade fire, Newsom said the number of evacuees in Northern California had diminished from 190,000 at the peak of that blaze to 130,000 on Tuesday.

Property losses from the Kincade, listed at 30% contained, were put at 189 homes and other structures, double Monday’s tally.