LOS ANGELES -- A pillar of smoke and ash rose into the sky over Lake Hughes like an erupting volcano. Firefighters hustled to save nearby structures as flames swirled and feasted on dry brush and timber.
If the explosive blaze that crews battled in the Angeles National Forest on Wednesday night is any indication, officials say Southern California has entered a new chapter of the 2020 fire season.
"We're getting to the most critical part ... after a long, hot, dry summer," Los Angeles County Fire Chief Darrell Osby said Thursday.
Vegetation that was soaked by a series of storms in late spring has finally dried and is now prone to ignition, authorities say. What comes next are the searing Santa Ana winds of the fall.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Lake fire quickly scorched 10,500 acres as it raced west toward Interstate 5 and northeast toward residents in Pine Canyon in the Antelope Valley, triggering evacuations and burning three buildings.
Though the fire's western flank stalled upon hitting a burn scar from the 2013 Powerhouse fire, another section grew ferociously when it reached ground that hadn't been visited by a blaze in nearly a century. Flames were 100 feet long in some areas, officials said.
"Where there's a ton of fuel, that's where you'll see the big, giant flames like you saw yesterday, and that's what's really conducive to rapid fire growth," said Jake Miller, an L.A. County Fire spokesman.
The blaze was particularly notable because it had became "plume dominated" -- firefighter-speak for fires that produce their own weather conditions. A light ocean breeze during the day injected just enough moisture into the air that it made the atmosphere in the area unstable, encouraging the smoke and soot to float up and form a towering pyrocumulus cloud that was seen for miles.
"Sometimes when you have those types of conditions, you can have a fire going in all kinds of directions depending on the behavior of the plume," Osby said. "I've never seen it, but there's been instances where it creates its own thunderstorms, lightning strikes or fire tornadoes."
The smoke plume essentially acts like a vacuum in the sky, sucking in oxygen from the surrounding area, creating wind and lowering the air pressure as heat pushes the soot and ash tens of thousands of feet up.