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The same vicious winds that turned three Southern California wildfires into destructive dynamos were also making the firefight more difficult even as a dramatic new blaze erupted Wednesday in the tony Bel-Air area of Los Angeles.
Hundreds of homes across the L.A. metropolitan area and beyond were feared destroyed since Monday, but firefighters were only slowly managing to make their way into some of the hard-hit areas for an accurate count.
As many as five fires have closed highways, schools and museums, shut down production of TV series and cast a hazardous haze over the region. About 200,000 people were under evacuation orders. No deaths and only a few injuries were reported.
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From the beachside city of Ventura, where rows of homes were leveled, to the rugged foothills north of Los Angeles, where stable owners had to evacuate horses in trailers, to Bel-Air, where the rich and famous have sweeping views of L.A. below, fierce Santa Ana winds sweeping in from the desert fanned the flames and fears.
"God willing, this will slow down so the firefighters can do their job," said Maurice Kaboud, who ignored an evacuation order and stood in his backyard with a garden hose at the ready.
Air tankers that were grounded most of Tuesday because of high winds went up on Wednesday, dropping flame retardant. Firefighters rushed to attack the fires before the winds picked up again. They were expected to gust as high as 80 mph overnight into Thursday, possibly creating unprecedented fire danger.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection uses a color-coded wind index in its forecasts. Thursday's forecast is purple, the most extreme conditions, which has never been used before, director Ken Pimlott said.
"Conditions are going to change again tonight," Pimlott said. "They're going to be extreme tomorrow. We need to have everybody's heads up — heads on a swivel — and pay very close attention."
Before dawn Wednesday, flames exploded on the steep slopes of Sepulveda Pass, closing a section of heavily traveled Interstate 405 and destroying four homes in Bel-Air, where houses range from $2 million to more than $30 million.
Firefighters hosed down a burning Tudor-style house as helicopters dropped water on hillsides to protect homes from the 150-acre (60-hectare) blaze.
A Christmas tree saved from the flames was in the front yard of a burned-out house and a large painting was propped against a Range Rover.
Bel-Air was the site of a catastrophic fire in 1961 that burned nearly 500 homes. Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor were among the celebrities who lost their houses.
Across the wide freeway from the fire, the Getty Center art complex was closed to protect its collection from smoke damage. Many schools across Los Angeles canceled classes because of poor air quality. UCLA, at the edge of the Bel-Air evacuation zone, canceled afternoon classes and its evening basketball game.
By late afternoon, firefighters said they had controlled the fire's advance.
Production of HBO's "Westworld" and the CBS show "S.W.A.T." was suspended because of the danger to cast and crew from two nearby fires.
In Ventura County northwest of L.A., the biggest and most destructive of the wildfires grew to 101 square miles and had nearly reached the Pacific on Tuesday night after starting 30 miles inland a day earlier.
Lisa Kermode and her children returned to their home Tuesday after evacuating Monday to find their home and world — including a Christmas tree and the presents they had just bought — in ashes.
"We got knots in our stomach coming back up here," Kermode said. "We lost everything, everything, all our clothes, anything that was important to us. All our family heirlooms — it's not sort of gone, it's completely gone."
The fire destroyed at least 150 structures, but incident commander Todd Derum said he suspects hundreds of homes have been lost.
While winds were calmer Wednesday, the fire remained active around Ventura, spreading along the coast to the west and up into the mountains around the community of Ojai and into the agricultural area of Santa Paula.
"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."
While the blazes brought echoes of the firestorm in Northern California that killed 44 people two months ago, no deaths and only a handful of injuries had been reported.
In the foothills of northern Los Angeles where a wildfire dubbed the Creek Fire raged out of the Kagel Canyon area above Sylmar, 30 structures burned. Mayor Eric Garcetti said the gusty winds expected to last most of the week had created a dangerous situation and he urged 150,000 people under mandatory evacuation orders to leave their homes before it's too late.
"We have lost structures, we have not lost lives," he said. "Do not wait. Leave your homes."
Virginia Padilla, whose family owns a ranch in Sylmar, said she lost at least 30 horses to the blaze.
The Rye Fire in the Santa Clarita area, meanwhile, prompted evacuations of schools and 1,300 homes. As of Wednesday, it had charred 7,000 acres and was 5 percent contained.
Fires are not typical in Southern California this time of year but can break out when dry vegetation and too little rain combine with the Santa Ana winds. Hardly any measurable rain has fallen in the region over the past six months.
And fires in suburban settings like these are likely to become more frequent as climate change makes fire season a year-round threat and will put greater pressure on local budgets, said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College who has written extensively about wildfires.
"There are going to be far greater numbers that are going to be evacuated, as we're seeing now," Miller said. "These fires are not just fast and furious, but they're really expensive to fight."
Krysta Fauria, Brian Melley, Robert Jablon, John Antczak, Chris Carlson and Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.