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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Wildfires broke out in Southern California today as the ``strongest'' Santa Ana windstorm so far this season entered its second day, churning powerful Santa Ana winds amid low humidity and prompting the issuance of red flag warnings over much of L.A. County and all of Orange County.
Red flag warnings signifying the risk of wildfires will remain in effect until Thursday evening over virtually all of Los Angeles County, the nation's most populous, with the exception of the Antelope Valley.
The warnings were issued for the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains, the Angeles National forest, the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and San Gabriel valleys, beach cities, metropolitan Los Angeles, Downtown L.A., and the Hollywood Hills. All of Orange County -- the coast and its interior sections -- will also be under a red flag warning.
The warnings are currently scheduled to expire at various times, from 3 p.m. Thursday to midnight. Also in force are wind warnings of varying severity.
The humidity levels in the L.A. County areas under a red flag will vary from between 4 and 15 percent, National weather Service forecasters said.
Amid the stiff winds, a huge fire broke out in Ventura County, reportedly traveling 14 miles from the Santa Paula area before sweeping into the city of Ventura. By mid morning, that blaze had scorched 45,000 acres and destroyed more than 150 structures, including private homes and an apartment building. A fire also broke out in the Sylmar area, charring more than 2,500 acres. Both fires prompted evacuations.
Additionally, a new fire was reported shortly before 10 a.m. near Magic Mountain in Santa Clarita.
Strong wind gusts were clocked in L.A. County this morning, according to the NWS, including 70 miles per hour at Chilao in the San Gabriels, 54 mph in the Malibu Hills, 43 mph in Saugus in the Santa Clarita Valley, 45 mph at Burbank Airport, 34 in Altadena in the San Gabriel Valley, and 26 mph in the Antelope Valley.
The NWS warned in a statement that wind gusts of between 50 and 70 mph are likely today in the mountains, with 80-mph gusts possible.
''This will likely be the strongest and longest duration Santa Ana wind event we have seen so far this season,'' which runs from late September through April, according to an NWS statement. ``If fire ignition occurs, there will be the potential for very rapid fire spread ... and extreme fire behavior.''
L.A. area residents didn't have to look far for a sense of what local fire commanders are determined to avoid. A fast-moving wildfire driven by strong winds blew into the city of Ventura this morning, destroying homes and forcing 27,000 people to evacuate. About 150 structures, including the Hawaiian Village Apartments complex, burned down and more were threatened. The Thomas fire had charred 31,000 acres by early today, but fire officials expect it will scorch at least 50,000 acres in the mountains between Santa Paula and Ventura.
``The prospects for containment are not good,'' said Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen.
While red flag warnings are now schedule to expire at 6 p.m. Thursday, ``long range computer models are showing the possibility that the Santa Ana winds could persist into Friday or Saturday, which may require the extension of the red flag warning,'' according to an NWS statement.
The NWS warned that today's winds could blow at 35 to 50 mph with gusts of between 70 and 80 mph in the San Gabriels, at 30 t0 45 mph with gusts of between 60 and 75 mph in the Santa Monicas, at 25 to 40 mph with gusts of between 55 and 65 mph in the valleys, and at 15 to 30 mph with 45 mph gusts along the coast and in metropolitan Los Angeles.
Besides driving wildfires, ``winds this strong may down trees and power lines, causing property damage or power outages,'' warned an NWS statement.
In light of the threat, red flag parking restrictions will be in effect today in Los Angeles and Pasadena. The restrictions in Pasadena took effect at 6 p.m. Monday. In Los Angeles they will take effect at 8 a.m. today and remain in force until further notice, according to the fire departments in both cities.
The restrictions, imposed only during times of high fire danger, are aimed at ensuring emergency vehicles are able to navigate sometimes narrow streets to respond to fires, and to ensure residents are able to safely evacuate neighborhoods.
Vehicles parked illegally in posted locations in ``very high fire hazard severity zones'' will be subject to towing, according to the LAFD. The Pasadena Fire Department also warned that violators can be cited or towed.
In the Antelope Valley, no red flag warning is in force today, but the valley has its own cross to bear in the form of exceedingly low temperatures, with freeze and hard freeze conditions expected tonight.
The NWS forecast sunny skies in L.A. County today and highs of 51 degrees on Mt. Wilson; 55 in Palmdale and Lancaster; 64 in Saugus; 67 in Avalon; 73 in Pasadena, Burbank and Woodland Hills; 74 in San Gabriel; and 75 in downtown L.A, Long Beach and at LAX. Temperatures will rise over the coming days, with some communities hitting 80 Wednesday.
Orange county is also expected to experience sunshine today and highs of 68 in Laguna Beach, 69 in San Clemente; 70 in Newport Beach, Mission Viejo and Yorba Linda; 72 in Irvine; 73 in Anaheim; and 74 in Fullerton. Slight increases are expected over the coming days.