New blaze ignites near LA as fierce California wildfires rage

Los Angeles (AFP) –


California motorists commuted past a blazing inferno Wednesday as wind-whipped wildfires raged across the Los Angeles region, with flames triggering the closure of a major freeway and mandatory evacuations in an area dotted with mansions.

One day after the "Thomas" fire broke out -- devastating 65,000 acres (26,300 hectares) and forcing 27,000 people to flee -- high winds caused another wave of wildfires to erupt overnight, including one in Los Angeles' affluent Bel-Air neighborhood that gridlocked heavy traffic as ash and smoke churned over the smoldering hillside.

The "Skirball" fire ignited before 5 a.m. (1300 GMT) and quickly engulfed some 50 acres, with forecasters predicting the 25-mile-per-hour winds could cause further spreading, threatening multi-million dollar homes and the acclaimed Getty Center museum.

The fire captured in apocalyptic images also prompted authorities to close the 405 Freeway, a major commuting corridor famous for its traffic congestion.

The acclaimed Getty arts institution was closed, with museum authorities tweeting that "air filtration systems are protecting the galleries from smoke."

Just north in Ventura County the Thomas blaze continued unabated, after erupting in the hills of oak and scrub north of Santa Paula on the gusts of powerful so-called Santa Ana winds.

That fire had left at least one dead and destroyed more than 150 homes and businesses, and still threatened some 12,000 structures. It clogged the area with thick black smoke and caused mandatory evacuations, road closures and school cancellations.

Fire departments from across the state had arrived to help battle the ferocious wildfires, as heavy winds expected to continue through Thursday complicated their struggle to contain the flames.

The National Weather Service predicted "extremely critical fire weather area for portions of southern California," saying wind gusts could hit 70 miles per hour in some areas.

Firefighters were also on the scene of the Rye fire -- which had grown to the 7,000 acres in the Santa Clarita area -- as well as the Creek fire north of downtown Los Angeles that had grown to more than 11,000 acres.

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over the area Tuesday, announcing: "This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly.

"It's critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so."

US President Donald Trump tweeted a message of "thoughts and prayers" to California as it closed the end of its deadliest year ever for wildfires.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in the path of California's wildfires," the president said on Twitter. "I encourage everyone to heed the advice and orders of local and state officials."

"THANK YOU to all First Responders for your incredible work!"