Several fires burned across Southern California on Thursday and into early Friday morning, forcing evacuations and torching homes, while forecasters warned of more dangerously dry and windy weather.
The Maria Fire started on Thursday evening in Ventura County, California, northwest of Los Angeles, and quickly exploded into a 7,400-acre blaze. The fire began on top of South Mountain near Santa Paula, California, and has moved toward several nearby towns overnight, the Los Angeles Times reported. Authorities have ordered the evacuation of roughly 7,500 residents thus far, the Times reported, as about 400 firefighters battled to contain the damage.
Helicopters dropping water on the Maria Fire were briefly hampered by someone flying a drone in the area, KGET reported.
The Hillside Fire broke out early Thursday morning and quickly burned 200 acres as it raced downhill and into neighborhoods of north San Bernardino and west of Highway 18. It spurred the evacuation of 1,300 residents, destroyed at least six homes and damaged 18 others.
As of Thursday afternoon, the fire was 50 percent contained, San Bernardino County Fire Department spokesperson Chris Prater told The Washington Post. Evacuations were set to be lifted for residents in the area by 6 p.m. local time on Thursday.
Wind remains a key issue for first responders, with ideal conditions for a fire behavior known as "long-range spotting": when embers from a fire are carried downwind and can potentially spark another blaze.
"We still have a lot of work to do to get rid of the hot spots," Kathleen Opliger, incident commander for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, said during a Thursday news conference. Opliger urged residents to be vigilant, watch the wind and evacuate if ordered to.
"The fire moves so fast and continues to have the potential to move quickly," she said. "If folks don't evacuate when we need them to, it will make it very difficult to get them out."
Opliger acknowledged that the fire hasn't been contained "in any sense of the word," but said she understood that displaced residents were eager to get back home.
To the west, in Ventura County, the Easy Fire in Simi Valley approached the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library's front door Wednesday before firefighters began to get it under control. The fire burned through the night as firefighters struggled to contain a blaze that has already torched 1,700 acres and forced the mandatory evacuation of 30,000 people.
At least three firefighters have been injured while fighting the fire, according to the Ventura County Fire Department. As of Thursday morning, the blaze was 10 percent contained. That afternoon, authorities lifted all evacuation orders.
One resident living west of Simi Valley near State Route 23 described barely evacuating in time as the fire jumped the highway.
"We put everything in the car, and I'm so glad we did," Frank Rahimi of Moorpark, Calif., told CBS News. "By the time it jumped the 23 Freeway, we only had seconds to get out."
The cause of both fires remains under investigation.
A third fire burning just south of San Bernardino is less of a mystery: The 46 Fire in Riverside County was sparked when a late-night police chase ended in a car crash, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The fire doubled in size within two hours Thursday morning and was most recently reported to have grown to 300 acres with just 5 percent containment, according to the Riverside County Fire Department. The rapidly-moving fire forced evacuations in the area and damaged one house and two mobile homes along with two other buildings.
Joyce Russell, a Riverside resident, was still awake at 2:30 a.m. when she smelled smoke but initially mistook it for her neighbor's cigarettes, she told the Times.
A neighbor raced to Russell's door shouting, "You've got a fire in your backyard!"
The paper reported Russell, who has cataracts and was worried about making it out safely, was ultimately able to evacuate with her chihuahua, Sabrina, with the help of a man who offered to drive her and her car to a local evacuation shelter.
Evacuations for the 46 Fire were also lifted Thursday afternoon.
As the Southern California fires burned, a smoky haze draped the Los Angeles skyline. The county government warned residents of unhealthy air and advised them to stay inside and shut their doors and windows.
The National Weather Service in Los Angeles forecast 50 to 70 mph winds for Thursday, with "isolated gusts" up to 80 mph in parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The NWS is still using ominous warning language that it crafted specifically for this event. The so-called "Extreme Red Flag Warning" was issued through 6 p.m. local time Friday due to a combination of high winds up to 60 mph, relative humidity in the low single digits and abundant, extremely dry and combustible vegetation.
However, with slackening winds forecast for Thursday afternoon, the threat of extreme fire behavior with any fires that ignite will lessen somewhat. The department issued the rare "Extreme Red Flag" weather warnings, particularly for the mountainous portions of the south.
Farther south, toward San Diego, the Santa Ana winds are abating faster, with Red Flag warnings expiring Thursday at 6 p.m. local time. However, dry air could still present complications for firefighters combating blazes there.
The ongoing Santa Ana winds event has transported cold air westward from the Great Basin region, with freeze warnings in effect for inland areas of Southern California.
An unusually cold air mass with Arctic high pressure is sitting over the Rockies and into the Great Basin region, which has set up a strong temperature and air pressure gradient with the air over, and just off, the coast of California; this gradient helps power the Santa Ana winds.
But even though this is a cold Santa Ana, and hot weather is typically associated with wildfires, the air is extremely dry, as is the vegetation or "fuel" for the fires. Therefore, the wildfire danger is extremely high right now, despite the gradually cooler temperatures.
As Californians in the south faced another day of adverse weather and quickly spreading fires, their neighbors to the north are contending with a different set of factors from blazes like the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County. Since the Kincade Fire sparked in Sonoma wine country last week, it has consumed 76,825 acres, an area more than five times the size of Manhattan, and is now 60 percent contained.
But as the fire is contained in Sonoma, San Francisco Bay area residents are slowly emerging from days of planned power outages enacted to prevent further fire-starting conditions amid high winds and low humidity. At their peak, more than half a million residents around the Bay Area were affected.
The Washington Post’s Michael Brice-Saddler and Tim Elfrink contributed to this report.