Hurricane-force gusts could cripple battle vs. Southern California wildfires

Last Updated Dec 7, 2017 9:47 AM EST

VENTURA, Calif. -- Southern California has felt yellow wind, orange wind, and red wind. But never purple wind. Until now. The color-coded system showing the expected strength of the winds driving the region's fierce wildfires has reached uncharted territory, pushing past red, which means "high," into the color that means "extreme."

"The forecast for tomorrow (Thursday) is purple," said Ken Pimlott, director at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "We've never used purple before."

Southern California has already been hit hard by three major fires that have put tens of thousands of people under evacuation orders and destroyed at nearly 200 homes and buildings, a figure almost certain to grow.

But hard-won progress of firefighters could be erased Thursday, reports CBS Los Angeles.

"We're talking winds that can surface that can be 80 miles an hour," Pimlott said. "These will be winds that there will (be) no ability to fight fires."

Category 1 hurricanes have maximum sustained winds ranging between 74 and 95 mph.

Such winds can instantly turn a tiny fire into a large one, or carry embers that spark new fires miles away.

Millions of cellphones buzzed loudly Wednesday night from San Diego to Santa Barbara with a sound that usually means an Amber Alert, but this time meant a rare weather warning for strong winds making extreme fire danger.

Officials hope the electronic push will keep the whole region alert and keep the death toll from the week's fires at zero.

The alert, with a long, loud tone, startled users on social media, who were quick to comment on the message. Some responses were serious, reports CBS Los Angeles. Some were less so.

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Emergency wildfires alert sent to many L.A.-area residents on December 6, 2017

CBS Los Angeles

The station is updating viewers with the latest on all the major wildfires.

In what may have been an early sign of the 140-square-mile fire known as the Thomas Fire getting new life, several thousand new evacuations were ordered late Wednesday night in Ojai, a town of artists and resorts. The blaze had been creeping there already, but an increase in winds pushed it close enough for many more to flee.

"I was expecting, you know, this year to see snow on that mountain, and now the thing's on fire," Jake Sandell said.

As the Thomas Fire inched west toward Santa Barbara County, one man pulled over on the side of Highway 1 in La Conchita and rushed to rescue an animal, "CBS Evening News" anchor Jeff Glor reports.

On Thursday morning, officials closed U.S. 101 for more than a dozen miles along the coast, cutting off a major route between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties as fire charred heavy brush along lanes.

The wilder winds could easily make new fires explode too, as one known as the Skirball Fire did Wednesday in Los Angeles' exclusive Bel-Air section, where a fire consumed multimillion-dollar houses that give the rich and famous sweeping views of Los Angeles.

Few flames were visible late Tuesday, but in the morning fire exploded on the steep slopes of Sepulveda Pass, closing a section of heavily traveled Interstate 405 and destroying four homes.

Flames burned a wine storage shed at media mogul Rupert Murdoch's 16-acre Moraga Vineyards estate and appeared to have damaged about 7 acres of vines, a spokeswoman said.

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Where the California wildfires are expected to strike.

CBS News

Across the wide I-405 freeway from the fire, the Getty Center art complex was closed to protect its collection from smoke damage. Many schools across Los Angeles were closed because of poor air quality and classes were canceled at 265 schools Thursday. UCLA canceled Thursday classes.

Back in the beachside city of Ventura, the fire killed more than two dozen horses at a stable and had destroyed at least 150 structures, a number that was expected to get far bigger as firefighters are able to assess losses.

Air tankers that had been grounded much of the week because of high winds flew on Wednesday, dropping flame retardant. Firefighters rushed to attack the fires before winds picked up again.

"We're basically in an urban firefight in Ventura, where if you can keep that house from burning, you might be able to slow the fire down," said Tim Chavez, a fire behavior specialist at the blaze. "But that's about it."