Carpinteria, California (CNN)The four wildfires wreaking devastation across Southern California are wearing on the firefighters and military personnel who have been laboring nonstop to douse the blazes, one of which is now the size of Denver.
On top of exhaustion from the long hours, they’re also trying to stave off the effects of smoke inhalation and the airborne embers irritating their eyes.
“Honestly, the firefighters are taking a beating, but we have to acknowledge the residents because they’re taking a beating, too, but they’re cooperating with our orders,” said Thomas Kruschke, spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.
The state National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing out of Oxnard has also joined the fight, even though roughly 50 of the National Guardsmen involved had to be evacuated themselves, said spokeswoman Maj. Kimberly Holman. Three lost their homes in the blazes, she said.
“We have folks who lost their homes and many who were evacuated and still they did their duty and worked to help their community,” Holman said.
The unit was grounded late Thursday morning because of turbulent winds. On Wednesday, two C-130s were able to drop about 18,000 gallons of retardant during runs in the Ojai area in Ventura County, she said.
Grounding planes is sure to complicate the arduous battle against fires that have pushed 110,000 Californians from their homes. Compounding problems Thursday were dry weather and merciless winds, with gusts predicted to reach the strength of a Category 1 hurricane in mountainous areas.
About 5,000 firefighters — half of them assigned to the massive Thomas Fire alone — have been fighting the blazes as they race across hillsides and through neighborhoods, officials said. Almost 9,000 homes are without power. Officials have shut down hundreds of schools spanning at least 15 districts.
At 96,000 acres, the Thomas Fire is roughly the size of Colorado’s capital. The blaze was 5% contained as of early Thursday.
It could go down as one of the most destructive fires in state history, and at one point, spread over 31,000 acres in the span of about nine hours — roughly an acre a second. At that rate, it would have consumed New York’s Central Park in about 15 minutes. The plume from the fire stretches 1,000 miles into the Pacific Ocean.
Together, four fires — the Thomas, Creek, Rye and Skirball — have consumed about 116,000 acres, according to the state fire summary.
espite a brief respite, winds began picking up again Wednesday evening. A gust of 85 mph was detected in Ventura County. Forecasters say Thursday will bring gusts of 80 mph in the higher altitudes, while winds of 50 to 70 mph will make firefighters’ mission difficult in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
The humidity won’t help. It will still be low Thursday, meaning the trees and brush fueling the fires will continue to be tinder.
• Another fire: A blaze in San Diego prompted officials to evacuate a middle school and a high school. The fire went from about 10 acres to between 100 and 150 acres in less than an hour, fire authorities said. Two structures were destroyed, according to Cal Fire.
• New measures: Fire officials said Thursday brought a historic fire danger score and prompted them to upgrade their color-coding system to include purple for the first time.
• More evacuations: Several cities in the Ojai Valley are under mandatory evacuation. Satellite images by the National Weather Service showed the city of Ojai surrounded by fires. Nestled in the Topatopa mountains, Ojai — a bohemian village of 7,600 that prides itself on boutique hotels, mom-and-pop shops, hiking and local food — is a popular tourist draw.
• Areas of concern: Firefighters said they are keeping the Skirball Fire at bay but worry it will jump west of Interstate 405.
• School closures: More than 260 Los Angeles public and charter schools will be closed Thursday and Friday.