By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Hundreds of Los Angeles area schools shut their doors on Thursday as raging wildfires wreaked havoc on Southern California, forcing about 200,000 people to flee and destroying hundreds of houses.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second largest with more than 640,000 students, said it closed at least 265 of its nearly 1,100 schools.
Dozens of schools were also closed in neighboring Ventura County, where the largest of the area blazes, the Thomas Fire, has charred more than 95,000 acres. The school district, with nearly 17,000 students, said it hoped to reopen on Monday.
“But that will only happen if a number of factors are in place that will guarantee the health and safety of our students and staff,” Ventura Unified School District Superintendent Dave Creswell said in a statement.
Dry Santa Ana winds, blowing westward from the California desert, could reach 75 miles per hour (130 km per hour) on Thursday. “Strong winds overnight creating extreme fire danger,” said an alert sent by the countrywide emergency system in Los Angeles.
Video and photographs on social media showed flame-covered hillsides along busy roadways on Wednesday as commuters slowly made their way to work or home, rows of houses reduced to ash and firefighters spraying water on walls of fire as they tried to save houses.
The Thomas Fire continued its westward push on Thursday, forcing a few hundred Santa Barbara County residents to be evacuated and the closing of coastal Highway 101 north of Ventura city.
In the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the Creek Fire destroyed at least 30 homes, blackened more than 12,000 acres (4,800 hectares) and forced the evacuation of 2,500 homes and a convalescent center.
Another blaze, the Rye Fire, threatened more than 5,000 homes and structures northwest of Los Angeles.
The Skirball Fire in Los Angeles has forced hundreds of residents in the wooded hills near the affluent Bel-Air neighborhood to evacuate and charred more than 150 acres (60 hectares).
Skirball threatened media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s Moraga Estate winery. The property was evacuated, with possible damage to some buildings, Murdoch said in a statement. “We believe the winery and house are still intact.”
“These are days that break your heart,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Wednesday during a news conference. “These are also days that show the resilience of our city.”
No civilian casualties or fatalities have been reported. Three firefighters were injured and hospitalized in stable condition, the Los Angeles Fire Department said.
The Thomas Fire has destroyed more than 150 homes and threatened thousands more in Ventura.
Additional evacuations were called for late Wednesday in the Ventura area, where 50,000 people had already fled their homes over the last three days.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New YOrk and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Larry King and Jeffrey Benkoe)