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Wind gusts reach hurricane force as wildfires torch Southern California

Wally Skalij/AP

The race to stop an inferno torching the Los Angeles area has gotten more dangerous as furious winds — some as strong as in a hurricane — stoke the flames.

Gusts of up to 70 mph will fuel the Getty Fire through Thursday, threatening more than 7,000 homes, the Los Angeles Fire Department said.

And that’s just one of at least 10 wildfires burning across California.

A new brush fire erupted Wednesday morning in Simi Valley, 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles and home to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Wind gusts of hurricane force — at least 74 mph — were reported at a weather station about 7 miles north of Simi Valley.

The newly formed Easy Fire quickly consumed 1,300 acres in Ventura County, officials said. It threatened 6,500 homes and forced school closures and evacuations, including one at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where a few staff stayed behind to protect what they can. The former President and his wife, Nancy, are buried at the site.

“We feel safe,” library spokeswoman Melissa Giller said.

Heavy winds “are a major concern to us,” Ventura County Fire Capt. Brian McGrath told CNN affiliate KABC.

About 26,000 people were forced from their homes by the Simi Valley fire, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub told reporters. Power had been shut off in some areas, he said.

The flames bore down on Highway 23 on the west side of Simi Valley, and could jump the highway.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” said Chad Cook, an assistant chief of the Ventura County Fire Department.

Phil Misiowiec, who lives in Wood Ranch, near the library, described a massive air assault on the blaze by Ventura County and Los Angeles firefighters.

“Winds are tremendously strong and erratic,” he told CNN. “We are just outside the evacuation zone but are packed and ready to go if things change.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state had secured a Fire Management Assistance Grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help fight the Easy Fire. The grant allows affected local and state and agencies to apply for a 75% reimbursement of eligible fire suppression costs.

Strong Santa Ana winds could linger into Thursday

Hours after the Easy Fire began, yet another blaze erupted in the city of Jurupa Valley, east of Los Angeles, according to Cal Fire. Known as the Hill Fire, it burned across 50 acres and led to the mandatory evacuations and the shutdown of Highway 60.

Hurricane-force wind gusts of 74 mph were also reported Wednesday at a weather station in the mountains outside of Malibu, according to the National Weather Service. Dozens of stations across southern parts of the state reported gusts of more than 50 mph, with relative humidity lower than 10% — factors helping to fuel the blazes.

The Getty Fire scorched 745 acres and was 27% contained, Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas told reporters. “Please keep in mind that the Getty Fire is still an active fire and we are not out of danger,” said Fire Capt. Jaime Moore said.

Fierce Santa Ana winds could last through Thursday, the National Weather Service said.

The blaze was likely caused by a tree branch that broke off from high winds and landed on nearby power lines, sparking and igniting nearby brush, the Los Angeles Fire Department said.

An extreme red flag warning went into effect Tuesday night and will last through Thursday evening. It’s the first time the weather service has issued such a warning to convey potentially historic fire conditions.

At least 26 million people are under some kind of red-flag warning.

‘We’re ready to go and say goodbye to our home’

Brigitte Kouba Neves, a Los Angeles native, says her heart stopped when her neighbor knocked on her door early Monday and told her they were in the evacuation zone.

“I can’t explain the feeling of packing a bag with the items I want to save from a fire,” she said in an Instagram post describing how she and her husband chose daily essentials and their wedding album.

Neves lives in a voluntary evacuation zone. So far, she’s been safe, but that could change at any moment.

“Currently, we have our suitcases by the door, the car is packed, and we’re ready to go and say goodbye to our home if they say we must,” she wrote. But she told CNN what’s it’s like to live under constant threat and worry.

“I have 3-year-old twins with sensitive lungs, so school has been canceled a lot, they’ve had to wear masks, and we’ve discussed the fact that there are fires far away … and it changes air quality,” she said. “We’ve let them role play with their firefighter outfits and trucks.”

California’s biggest fire is far from contained

North of the San Francisco Bay, the week-old Kincade Fire — the state’s largest active wildfire — has destroyed nearly 77,000 acres across Sonoma County and more than 180 structures, including 86 single-family homes, officials said.

It was only 30% contained on Wednesday. At the Sonoma County Airport, several airlines have canceled all flights through Thursday.

The Kincade Fire started October 23, but the cause is still under investigation.

The good news: Forecasters say winds will weaken through Thursday, and more residents can go home.

About 2,400 people from the 186,000 under evacuation orders had returned to their homes Tuesday night, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said.

“Many of these people are still returning to homes that are without power because of the PG&E power shutoff,” he said. “So we want people to be vigilant, be aware communication may not be great.”

PG&E slashes power to more Californians

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) cut off power to about 1 million customers in Northern California earlier this week in an attempt to prevent wildfires. But as hundreds of thousands started getting their power back, PG&E started another shutoff.

About 73% of the customers impacted by the shutoff earlier this week had power restored by early Wednesday, PG&E said. But the company also said it would begin cutting off power to 540,000 customers ahead of stronger winds.

Each “customer” can mean a home or a business, so the number of people affected is much higher than the number of customers.

After a request by Newsom, PG&E announced Tuesday it would be issuing credit to customers impacted by the October 9 power shutoff, which turned off the lights for about 738,000 customers.

The utility on Wednesday issued an “all clear” for nearly all areas affected by the shutoff except for Kern County. The order allows utility workers to inspect power lines and equipment before restoring power.

PG&E said about 365,000 customers remained without power.

In Southern California, more than 304,100 faced a possible power shutoff, Southern California Edison said.

And even those not in high-risk areas could still lose power.

“Customers who live in high fire risk areas as defined by the California Public Utilities Commission are more likely to experience” a shutoff, SCE said. “Customers who don’t live in these high fire risk areas may also be impacted because of how the grid is interconnected.”

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