Firefighters forced to step aside as winds powered infernos

A hillside glows with embers as the Thomas fire burns through Los Padres National Forest near Ojai, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

FALLBROOK, Calif. (AP) — Firefighters in Southern California were on high alert for dangerous fire potential even before the first blazes broke out.

But once flames met ferocious winds, fire crews were mostly powerless to stop infernos that destroyed more than 500 buildings, killed dozens of horses and forced hundreds of thousands of people to run from six out-of-control fires that have burned over 260 square miles (673 square kilometers) since Monday.

“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.”

Firefighters gained ground Friday, and some of the earliest evacuees who fled from flames Monday were being allowed to return home.

Yet new fires were popping up, and danger persisted. Vegetation is bone dry, there’s been hardly any rainfall and winds were expected to gusts up to 40 mph (64 kph) Saturday and up to 50 mph (80 kph) Sunday in the Los Angeles and Ventura areas, the National Weather Service said.

Fires have taken people by surprise over a large swath of Southern California since the biggest fire broke out Monday evening in Ventura County, where the only death attributed to the fires, so far, involved a 70-year-old woman who was found dead in a wrecked car on a designated evacuation route in the small city of Santa Paula.

Three people were burned trying to escape a fast-moving fire that started Thursday 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of San Diego that overran a mobile home retirement community and a race horse training facility.

John Knapp did not initially believe a sheriff deputy’s order to leave when he first spotted the fire outside his home in the Rancho Monserate Country Club.

“I thought he was full of bologna, but once I saw the flames and the smoke I thought that maybe he’s right,” Knapp said.

After leaving, he watched from a nearby highway for five hours as the community went up in smoke.

More than a third of the community’s 213 mobile homes burned as fire zigzagged along a hillside, skipping some streets and razing others. On one street, all 24 mobile homes were gone, with only hulls of cars and twisted metal remaining.

Knapp was sure he had seen his house burn on the television news, so he was expecting the worst when he snuck past a police barricade to witness the damage and was surprised to find it still standing.

Others who managed to get out with little more than the clothes on their backs were not as fortunate.

Dick Marsala was too overwhelmed to speak as he searched through the smoldering remnants of his house, trying to find his wallet. A framed photo of him playing golf was still hanging on a blackened wall.

“I’ll be darned,” he said, his eyes tearing up as he put on sunglasses

Tom Metier, whose home was spared, zipped through the mobile home park in a golf cart, giving bad news to some of the neighbors who called him.

“It’s really horrible to see some of these little streets look like a moonscape,” he told a friend whose home was reduced to black rubble.

The flames that tore through Fallbrook, the self-proclaimed “Avocado Capital of the World,” also hit hard in nearby town of Bonsall, where an estimated 30 to 40 elite thoroughbreds perished when the flames swept into barns at the San Luis Rey Training Facility.

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.”

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