Lighter winds give California firefighters a brief breather

LOS ANGELES — Firefighters battling blazes that have tormented the Los Angeles area for four days got some help Thursday when predicted record winds failed to materialize, but forecasters offered little hope for much improvement at least through the weekend.

“The good news since yesterday — we were promised erratic weather, but luckily the erratic weather was erratic in a good way,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Thursday. “The expected high winds from last night were calmer that we had some projections of.”

Still, the Santa Ana winds whipping through the mountains and canyons of northwest Los Angeles did spread the fire to Malibu, the sun-kissed mecca for movie stars and surfers. And the National Weather Service said the hot, dry winds would bedevil fire crews into late Sunday.

A red flag warning, signaling critical fire weather conditions, was extended through Sunday night for Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The weather service predicted 30-mph winds, with gusts above 60 mph, in open areas and higher elevations, where humidity levels could drop as low as a bone-dry 3 percent.

“This is very, very bad fire weather. We still have evacuation orders that are expanding right now,” said Ari Sarsalari, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel.

“It won’t be, really, until Sunday that the firefighters can really start to get some of the nitty-gritty work done,” he said.

The thick smoke drove air quality readings to “very unhealthy” levels in much of Santa Barbara County, north of Los Angeles. As many as 400 schools across across the San Fernando Valley and coastal areas were closed because of the unhealthy air.

Image: Wildfire in Ojai, California Image: Wildfire in Ojai, California

Flames consume a home as a wildfire burns Thursday in Ojai, California. Noah Berger / AP

Six major fires were burning across a large stretch of Southern California from Santa Barbara County south to just near Cleveland National Forest, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Thursday afternoon. At least four other, smaller fires were scattered across the area, as well, it said.

Just north, in Ventura County, the Thomas Fire, which first erupted near the town of Santa Paula, completed its westward march to the Pacific Ocean overnight, leaving 90,000 charred acres in its wake.

From artsy Ojai and Fillmore to the oceanside city of Carpintiera, residents were ordered to evacuate as the flames devoured hundreds of homes and businesses in their path.

“It’s definitely moving,” Ventura County Sheriff’s Capt. Garo Kuredjian told the Los Angeles Times. “Forecasters were correct in terms of the wind forecast for tonight — it’s much windier than it was yesterday.”

Among those whose homes were destroyed was Tom Lanski, a captain with the Ventura County Fire Department.

“I came off the line and went through our house and found a couple little trinkets,” Lanksi said told NBC News’ Lester Holt. “I just I grabbed pictures and stuff, because the other things can be replaced. But when you look back in retrospect, I mean, everything was gone so fast.”

Lanski, an 18-year veteran, said he’d seen some vicious wildfires in his time, but “I never thought I’d lose my house, ever.”

He was allowed to go home to be with his family. But he said he would be back on the lines Friday because “I want to go back out there and help best I can.”

So far, no deaths had been reported as a result of the fires. But the body of a woman was found near the site of a car accident in Ojai, and investigators were checking whether the blazes figured in her death, Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Donoghue said.

Earlier, on Wednesday, Los Angeles itself had to contend with a 450-acre blaze that burned several multimillion-dollar mansions in the tony Bel-Air neighborhood and threatened the Getty Center arts complex and its priceless collection.

The so-called Skirball fire forced officials to close down part of Interstate 405 — a key north-south artery and one of the busiest freeways in the country — for a time.

“These are days that break your heart, but these are also days that show the resilience of our city,” Garcetti said as shout-outs of support from celebrities poured in.

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in Ventura, and local firefighters were being reinforced by fire crews from as far away as Utah and Montana.

Alex Johnson and Miguel Almaguer reported from Los Angeles. Corky Siemaszko reported from New York.