LOS ANGELES — Ash rained down on one of the busiest freeways in Los Angeles on Wednesday as flames engulfed homes nestled on the cliffs above it, while a much larger wildfire continued to rage out of control in the Ventura area.
And it could get much worse.
California’s top firefighter said the state is in for the worst Santa Ana wind conditions it’s ever seen.
Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the wind wildfire threat to Southern California for Thursday is purple. That color has never been used before, meaning there is extreme danger and fires that erupt will burn uncontrollably.
Pimlott said the winds could hit 80 m.p.h. and make it impossible to fight the wildfires that have destroyed at least 200 homes and buildings. Some 200,000 people are under evacuation orders.
Los Angeles officials said Wednesday morning that at least four homes had been destroyed near Interstate 405 and that more remained at risk.
In the exclusive Bel Air neighborhood, the fire clogged traffic for miles in every direction, including on the narrow residential streets in the hills where many residents were ordered to evacuate.
In Ventura County, more than 1,700 firefighters were working to contain a fire that had burned 65,000 acres by Wednesday morning and was threatening 12,000 structures.
“These are days that break your heart,” Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles said at a news conference. “These are also days that show the resilience of our city.”
Dozens of schools were closed Wednesday. In the Los Angeles Unified district, more than 50 buildings were shuttered. In the Santa Monica-Malibu district, all classes were canceled. And in Ventura County, at least 18 districts were closed.
The University of California at Los Angeles campus was safe, officials said, but all afternoon classes were canceled. UCLA also canceled the men’s basketball game against Montana on Wednesday because of the fire. The campus health center was distributing masks to students to help protect them from the smoke wafting over the campus, the Daily Bruin student newspaper reported.
In 1961, a fire ripped through Bel Air and destroyed almost 500 homes, including many belonging to celebrities, and prompted adoption of new fire codes, including rules about clearing brush.
The blaze Wednesday ignited about 5 a.m., and within hours grew to about 150 acres. It posed a risk of jumping across the highway, where it would threaten the Brentwood neighborhood and the Getty Center, a multimillion-dollar complex that houses the art collection of J. Paul Getty. David Ortiz, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department, said 200 firefighters were out battling the blaze.
Authorities closed the northbound lanes of the interstate, one of the major links between the bulk of the city and the San Fernando Valley, and ordered evacuation of the area just east of the highway, from Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland Drive — a distance of almost 4 miles.
Nearby cities said they were preparing in case the fires moved toward their borders. Beverly Hills officials said the fires posed no immediate threat to their city, but they urged residents to be ready to flee.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.