By Laura J. Nelson, Matt Hamilton and Alene Tchekmedyian

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — A series of Santa Ana wind-driven wildfires burned out of control in Southern California on Tuesday, destroying more than 100 homes, forcing thousands to flee and smothering the region with smoke in what officials predicted would be a pitched battle for days.

In Ventura, flames consumed dozens of stucco-and-tile homes along tidy streets and cul-de-sacs. Propane tanks exploded and fan palms became ragged torches lofting fiery debris hundreds of yards.

By morning, an estimated 150 structures were destroyed in scenes reminiscent of the deadly October firestorm that tore through Santa Rosa.

But late Tuesday, Cal Fire officials said the number of homes burned in Ventura County could grow by hundreds.

As other fires erupted throughout the region, officials were quickly facing a triage situation.

The Creek fire broke out in the San Gabriel Mountain foothills before dawn and forced thousands to flee the Sylmar and Lake View Terrace sections, burning 30 homes and quickly becoming one of the largest fires in modern Los Angeles history.

Authorities closed almost 20 miles of the 210 Freeway to allow additional firefighting crews to stream into the area, as thick smoke from 11,000 acres of charred chaparral billowed over the San Fernando Valley and prompted unhealthy air warnings as far away as Santa Monica and Malibu.

By 10 a.m., a third fire ignited, this time in the Santa Clarita Valley, north of Los Angeles. It did not threaten homes but prompted the closure of Interstate 5. At 1 p.m. a fire in the San Bernardino foothills threatened the city’s California State University campus and prompted the closure of the 215 Freeway. Smaller fires broke out in Riverside and Ontario.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Ventura County.

“This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly, but we’ll continue to attack it with all we’ve got,” Brown said. “It’s critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so.”

As of Tuesday evening, no fatalities had been reported. Two firefighters in the Sylmar area suffered injuries. Officials said they had zero containment on the two most destructive fires, the Thomas and Creek. And the forecast was bleak, with seasonal dry winds, caused by high pressure over the Great Basin, not expected to relent until Thursday.

The National Weather Service called it “the strongest and longest duration Santa Ana wind event we have seen so far this season.”

The last time powerful Santa Ana winds lasted three days, the agency said, was in 2007, when wildfires destroyed thousands of homes and killed 10 people as they swept down foothills from Santa Barbara to Baja California.

Although Southern California had a relatively quiet fire season until Monday, the state has suffered its deadliest year to date because of the fires in Northern California’s wine country in October that killed at least 44 people and burned down 10,000 structures.

That backdrop sharpened the anxiety of residents in evacuation zones Tuesday.

In upper Kagel Canyon, north of Lake View Terrace, Scott Wells woke up before dawn to the smell of smoke.

When he looked outside, brush was burning all around his house.

“It was pretty scary,” Wells said. The family had had close calls with fire before, but it was always coming from one side or another of their home. This time, he said, “it was all around us.”

In the mountains and foothills above Ventura, the Thomas fire burned 45,550 acres, forcing 27,000 people to flee as it burned toward the heart of the historic coastal city.

In its path, staff at a canyon psychiatric hospital that specializes in treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder hastily had to evacuate patients in cars.

By Tuesday morning, at least two buildings of the campus lay in smoldering heaps of stucco and broken clay.

“I burst into tears,” said Sandy Case, 75, who lives next to Vista del Mar Hospital. “It broke my heart.”

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