Voracious wildfire claims a life, leaves thousands in dark

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SANTA PAULA, Calif. — Ferocious winds in Southern California have whipped up an explosive wildfire, doubling its size, forcing the evacuation of thousands of homes and knocking out power to thousands more.

The Ventura County Fire Department confirmed late Monday night that one death was associated with the menacing Thomas Fire; a person killed in a vehicle accident blamed on the blaze.

Fire officials say the fire broke out Monday east of Santa Paula, which is about 60 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The flames reached nearly 8 square miles just hours later, and before midnight on the West Coast it had doubled in size to almost 16 square miles.

CBS News producer Sean Gallitz said he could see an almost unbroken fire line burning ferociously along the top of the hill side from almost 20 miles away from on the 101 freeway.

The winds were pushing it toward Santa Paula, a city of some 30,000 people about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Most of the evacuated homes were in that city.

Authorities said that the city of Ventura, which is 12 miles southwest and has 106,000 residents, was likely to feel the effects soon.

“The fire growth is just absolutely exponential,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said. “All that firefighters can do when we have winds like this is get out ahead, evacuate people, and protect structures.”

The National Weather Service said winds of 43 mph with gusts over 60 mph were reported in the area and were expected to continue.

Sheriff’s officials said two structures had burned, but it wasn’t clear what they were.

The Southern California Edison power company said about 263,000 customers were without electricity in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties as of early Tuesday morning, after the fire torched a key supply line in the region.

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