OJAI, Calif. -- The return of powerful winds Thursday pushed the destructive Ventura County fire closer to several communities, prompting new evacuations.
Communities both on the coast and inland were under threat. At 4 a.m., officials closed the 101 Freeway between Routes 126 and 150. According to the California Highway Patrol, that left no open routes between Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
The Thomas fire has scorched about 90,000 acres and carved a path of destruction that stretches more than 10 miles from Santa Paula to the Pacific Ocean.
As flames raged toward neighborhoods in Ojai, Carpinteria and Fillmore, officials issued new evacuation orders in Ojai Valley, notifying residents with an emergency cellphone alert. Authorities said they were helping residents of five assisted-living facilities evacuate, while people at Ojai Hospital were advised to shelter in place.
"It's definitely moving," Ventura County Sheriff's Capt. Garo Kuredjian said of the fire. "Forecasters were correct in terms of the wind forecast for tonight -- it's much windier than it was yesterday."
The fire is burning on the north and east side of Highway 150 and on the west side of Highway 33. Another section of the fire was burning along the coast into Santa Barbara County.
"It's a weird wind pattern," Kuredjian said.
Authorities had already expanded mandatory evacuation orders hours earlier in east Ojai after flames rolled down slopes about four miles north of downtown. Residents crowded street corners and gas stations downtown to watch the flames, wondering if they were going to be forced to leave.
"It looks pretty bad up there, but as of right now we have not lost any structures in the city of Ojai," said Rudy Livingston, the city's finance director. He said that officials have four 15-passenger vans and three vintage trolleys available to help evacuate residents.
About half an hour after that, residents in Carpinteria east of Bailard Avenue -- along the west flank of the fire -- were advised to evacuate in an emergency cellphone alert.
The Thomas fire was 5 percent contained, mostly along the southeast flank in the Santa Paula area. Forecasters say strong Santa Ana winds, coupled with low humidity, could offer "a recipe for explosive fire growth."
"We stand a good chance of a challenging night and day tomorrow," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Tim Chavez said Wednesday, adding that there's potential for fire growth on the northwest side and a high probability of spot fires. "It's going to be a difficult night and day."
The focus Wednesday, officials said, was keeping the fire out of the Ojai Valley while assessing the devastation in the cities of Ventura and Santa Paula.
The hot Santa Ana winds that drove the fire at remarkable speed on Tuesday had lessened greatly Wednesday. However, they were predicted to increase again on Thursday.
"We are in the beginning of a protracted wind event," said state fire chief Ken Pimlott.
"There will be no ability to fight fire in these kinds of winds," Pimlott said. "At the end of the day, we need everyone in the public to listen and pay attention. This is not 'watch the news and go about your day.' This is pay attention minute-by-minute ... keep your head on a swivel."
(Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.)
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