"We are not letting our guard down": Southern California under siege from wildfires

SHADOW HILLS, Calif. -- The Shadow Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles is the scene of one of six major wildfires burning out of control tonight in Southern California, CBS Evening News anchor Jeff Glor reports. The first death has been reported. The burned body of a woman was found next to her flipped-over car in Ventura County.

The fires, driven by powerful Santa Ana winds, have now burned more than 116,000 acres -- and there appears to be no end in sight. More than 100 homes have been destroyed or damaged, and at least 330,000 people have been evacuated.

Southern California remains under siege. Throughout the night, firefighters in Ventura County battled enormous walls of flames.
 
The flames consumed trees and brush on the 101 earlier Thursday and for stretches shut down one of the busiest freeways in America. The worst of it, as we saw, was in Faria Beach. 

You can get a sense of the intensity of the winds up in the air, Glor reported from a helicopter. When the gusts move through, they can pick up embers from one fire and start a new one. Those embers can be carried for miles. 

The Thomas Fire, the biggest of the six major fires, has burned 96,000 acres and is only 5 percent contained.

The latest, in San Diego, spread quickly. 

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The fires in southern Califorina on Dec. 7, 2017.

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"Any time we have erratic winds like this, we are never out of danger," said Rich Macklin, with the Ventura County Fire Department. "We are not letting our guard down. Firefighters are still down the street here, working on structure protection."

The challenge for firefighters is getting a handle on the steep, dry terrain that acts as fuel. 

There are the starter fires, and although the wind is calm right now, the concern is that if -- and when -- that wind picks back up, the smaller fires becomes a far more serious situation.   

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A firefighters tries battle wildfires in Ventura County, Calif. on Dec. 7, 2017.

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"Devastated, and every friend we talk to is in the same boat," said Kat Merrick.

Merrick and Chris Corsones have already suffered. They returned to their neighborhood to find their home gone. 

"The photos and the mementos and the family heirlooms their gone and their not coming back," Corsones said. 

On Wednesday, drivers in Santa Barbara County drove past the fires along Highway 1. The intense heat didn't stop one man from pulling over to rescue an animal along the side of the road. 

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The wildfire along the 101 freeway in southern California.

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The Skirball Fire threatened multi-million dollar houses in Bel Air.

In Los Angeles County, 250,000 people have been evacuated. Judy Hofmann Sanders' family had owned their home since 1963.

She said the flames were "12 feet" high. 

"All the trees were on fire. And the firemen, they said, 'Sorry, we tried to save it,' and I said, 'We appreciate it,'" Hoffman Sanders said.

Sanders' house was not an uncommon sight:  the only thing left standing after the house was destroyed is the chimney.

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A charred home in Ventura County, California. 

CBS News

CBS News' David Begnaud reports that overnight, the winds that were expected never materialized. But at around 10 a.m. local time in Ventura County, right off the 101 freeway, some brush went up in flames, and we started to see the wind gusts that were originally predicted.

By early afternoon, firefighters were attacking every fire that exploded along the ocean-side highway, trying to stop the flames before reaching beachfront homes. Begnaud reported that those who live in Southern California are used to this. They don't close down the freeway; they reduce it to one lane as flames more than 100-feet tall rage.

Most residents were evacuated, but a few stayed behind and tried to save their homes. The surrounding mountains were thick with smoke. Officials said the air had not reached toxic levels yet, but ash was making it extremely difficult to breath.

In Ojai, firefighters were trying to stop a fire from marching down the mountain to the homes that are below. Begnaud reports that the visibility was poor, but not bad enough to ground the helicopters doing water drops. They were still able to bring in air support as firefighters essentially tried to build a line to essentially stop the fire from spreading down the mountain. 

The Santa Ana winds are expected to continue until Saturday, with wind gusts between 40 and 60 mph.