“California fires force evacuation in exclusive LA area”

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LOS ANGELES – Southern California wildfires raged into an affluent Los Angeles neighbourhood on Wednesday, forcing evacuations, threatening multibillion-dollar homes and temporarily shutting a major highway.

The new fire also threatened the hilltop campus of one of the world’s richest museums, even as more than 1,000 firefighters in nearby Ventura County battled the biggest of the wind-fed blazes, which threatened more than 12 000 homes.

A brush fire erupted overnight and quickly spread, creating an alarming spectacle for pre-dawn commuters on the hillsides east of Interstate 405 before the California Highway Patrol closed the heavily travelled freeway.

The Skirball Fire, the newest of several uncontained brush fires that have sprung up in Southern California since Monday, prompted officials to order residents of the hilly, wooded area west of the Bel Air neighbourhood out of their homes. 

It was not immediately clear how many people were affected by the evacuation order in the area south of scenic Mulholland Drive and north of Sunset Boulevard. 

“It would be safe to say there are hundreds of homes in the area,” said Brian Humphrey, spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department. Fire crews in the area were starting to see some structural damage, he added. 

The nearby Getty Center museum said it shut down for the day to protect its art collection from smoke damage.

The largest of the fires, known as the Thomas Fire, raged in and around the city of Ventura, some 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Los Angeles, fire officials said. The blaze has charred more than 65 000 acres in Ventura and its foothills, they said.

The entirely uncontained blaze was whipped by intensifying, dry Santa Ana winds blowing westward from the California desert. Gusts were forecast to top out at 70 miles per hour (115 km per hour) on Wednesday and remain strong through the week. 

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, freeing state funds and resources to assist firefighters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it approved grants to help cover the cost of emergency work for the Thomas Fire and two others.

US President Donald Trump said on Wednesday his thoughts and prayers were with everyone in the path of the wildfires.

“I encourage everyone to heed the advice and orders of local and state officials,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “THANK YOU to all First Responders for your incredible work!”

Although no casualties have been reported, the fires have destroyed at least 150 homes, forced mass evacuations, cancellation of classes of dozens of schools and resulted in the loss of power at more than 250 000 homes in Ventura County.

In the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the Creek Fire destroyed at least 30 homes, blackened more than 11 000 acres and forced the evacuation of 2 500 homes and a convalescent centre north of Interstate 210 on Tuesday.

Three firefighters were injured and hospitalised in stable condition, the Los Angeles Fire Department said. (Reuters)