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Bel-Air wildfire joins the siege across Southern California
Winds churn California wildfires, keep aircraft from helping

LOS ANGELES — A wildfire erupted in Los Angeles’ exclusive Bel-Air section Wednesday as yet another part of Southern California found itself under siege from an outbreak of wind-whipped blazes that have consumed multimillion-dollar houses and tract homes alike.

Hundreds of homes across the L.A. metropolitan area and beyond were feared destroyed since Monday, but firefighters were only slowly managing to make their way into some of the hard-hit areas for an accurate count.

As many as five fires have closed highways, schools and museums, shut down production of TV series and cast a hazardous haze over the region. About 200,000 people were under evacuation orders. No deaths and only a few injuries were reported.

From the beachside city of Ventura, where rows of homes were leveled, to the rugged foothills north of Los Angeles, where stable owners had to evacuate horses in trailers, to Bel-Air, where the rich and famous have sweeping views of L.A. below, fierce Santa Ana winds sweeping in from the desert fanned the flames and fears.

“God willing, this will slow down so the firefighters can do their job,” said Maurice Kaboud, who ignored an evacuation order and stood in his backyard with a garden hose at the ready.

Air tankers that were grounded most of Tuesday because of high winds went up on Wednesday, dropping flame retardant. Firefighters rushed to attack the fires before the winds picked up again. They were expected to gust as high as 80 mph (about 130 kph) overnight into Thursday, possibly creating unprecedented fire danger.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection uses a color-coded wind index in its forecasts. Tomorrow’s forecast is purple, the most extreme conditions, which has never been used before, director Ken Pimlott said.

“Conditions are going to change again tonight,” Pimlott said. “They’re going to be extreme tomorrow. We need to have everybody’s heads up — heads on a swivel — and pay very close attention.”

Before dawn Wednesday, flames exploded on the steep slopes of Sepulveda Pass, closing a section of heavily traveled Interstate 405 and destroying four homes in Bel-Air, where houses range from $2 million to more than $30 million.

Firefighters hosed down a burning Tudor-style house as helicopters dropped water on hillsides to protect homes from the 150-acre (60-hectare) blaze.

A Christmas tree saved from the flames was in the front yard of a burned-out house and a large painting was propped against a Range Rover.

Bel-Air was the site of a catastrophic fire in 1961 that burned nearly 500 homes. Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor were among the celebrities who lost their houses.

Across the wide freeway from the fire, the Getty Center art complex was closed to protect its collection from smoke damage. Many schools across Los Angeles canceled classes because of poor air quality. UCLA, at the edge of the Bel-Air evacuation zone, canceled afternoon classes and its evening basketball game.

By late afternoon, firefighters said they had controlled the fire’s advance.

Production of HBO’s “Westworld” and the CBS show “S.W.A.T.” was suspended because of the danger to cast and crew from two nearby fires.

In Ventura County northwest of L.A., the biggest and most destructive of the wildfires grew to 101 square miles (262 square kilometers) and had nearly reached the Pacific on Tuesday night after starting 30 miles (about 45 kilometers) inland a day earlier.

The fire destroyed at least 150 structures, but incident commander Todd Derum said he suspects hundreds of homes have been lost.

While winds were calmer Wednesday, the fire remained active around Ventura, spreading along the coast to the west and up into the mountains around the community of Ojai and into the agricultural area of Santa Paula.

“We’re basically in an urban firefight in Ventura, where if you can keep that house from burning, you might be able to slow the fire down,” said Tim Chavez, a fire behavior specialist at the blaze. “But that’s about it.”

Supreme Court asked to leave in place DACA document order

WASHINGTON — Several states and others suing over the Trump administration’s decision to end a program protecting young immigrants from deportation asked the Supreme Court on Wednesday to leave in place a judge’s order requiring the government to disclose documents.

Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice last week told the high court that the order by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup in San Francisco was too broad and would require the administration to turn over protected and nonpublic documents.

States, the University of California and others are suing over the administration’s decision to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, called DACA. The states said in a Supreme Court filing that “the public is entitled to know on what basis” the government “made this decision.” The program is scheduled to end on March 5, 2018.

A federal appeals court last month upheld the judge’s order, which requires the government to disclose all emails, letters and other documents it considered in its decision to end DACA. The administration had previously only turned over 256 pages of documents, all of which were already publicly available.

The judge himself, who was nominated by President Bill Clinton, also filed a several-page statement with the Supreme Court on Wednesday. In it, he told the court that the government’s filings leave “the incorrect impression” that he “endorsed unfettered” production of documents and other information by the government.

The government has been ordered to produce the additional documents by Dec. 22.

October wildfires in Northern California's wine country cost $9.4 billion

SACRAMENTO — October’s wine country wildfires are now the costliest in California history, with insurance claims pegged at $9.4 billion.

The latest estimate Wednesday from the state Insurance Department means the wine country fires have vaulted past the Oakland Hills fire of 1991 as the most expensive in California fire history. Oakland Hills generated about $2.8 billion in claims, when adjusted for inflation.

The estimate was released as wildfires continued to burn in Southern California, including a new blaze that erupted early Wednesday in the posh Bel-Air section of Los Angeles. Nearly 200,000 people have been ordered to evacuate, and almost 200 homes have been destroyed.

The wine country fires, which began Oct. 8, killed 44 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

The vast majority of the wine country claims originated in Sonoma County, where the bulk of the deaths occurred and losses now total $6.9 billion. A total of 14,686 claims have been filed by residents and businesses in Sonoma County. Another 2,470 claims have been filed in Napa County.

“The October wildfires that devastated whole communities and tragically cost 44 people their lives have now proven to be the most destructive and deadliest in our state’s history,” said Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones in a prepared statement.

The figures include claims from smaller fires that burned in early October in Yuba, Butte and Mendocino counties.

Of the $9.4 billion in claims, nearly $3.2 billion has been paid out so far by insurers.

The October fires remain under investigation, although Cal Fire and the state Public Utilities Commission are probing whether power lines owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. were a contributing factor. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the utility.

Cal Fire: Thomas Fire in Ventura County "mirroring" North Bay Tubbs Fire

The extreme conditions propelling a massive blaze in Ventura County eerily resemble those of the destructive Tubbs Fire that devastated Sonoma and Napa counties in early October, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection official said Tuesday.

Ventura County’s Thomas Fire started Monday night and grew exponentially to nearly 50,000 acres, resulting in evacuation of at least 27,000 people. The fire was zero percent contained Tuesday afternoon, officials said.

“This is mirroring the Tubbs Fire we had to deal with in Northern California,” Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean told The Chronicle. “We’re dealing with extreme wind conditions and weather that is extremely dry and (difficult) topography. This is not flat land, and some areas are inaccessible to get equipment to.”

As happened during the North Bay fires, gusting winds rapidly spread flames and struck at night when aircraft couldn’t be used to battle the blazes. Other similarities included the fires burning through remote, hard-to-reach terrain and jumping into heavily populated urban areas.

The trees, ground and air are similarly dry. Ventura County has seen just 0.13 of an inch of rain since July 1, according to the National Weather Service. In October and November, the total was only 0.05 inches.

The high Santa Ana winds are predicted to last through the week, and are blowing embers across the landscape in all directions.

“This just shows us that there is no fire season anymore,” McLean said. “It’s December. We have fires all year round now.”