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Firefighters grapple to get Woolsey fire under control amid strong winds in Los Angeles

The burnt wreckage of a vehicle and debris are seen in the aftermath of the Woolsey fire in Malibu, Southern California, U.S. November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
The burnt wreckage of a vehicle and debris are seen in the aftermath of the Woolsey fire in Malibu, Southern California, U.S. November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

LOS ANGELES — A flare-up of the Woolsey fire prompted a massive response by firefighters Tuesday as flames scorched a hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains, proof that crews have a ways to go to get a handle on what officials say is one of the largest fires to strike Los Angeles County in more than 100 years.

The spot fire, which has charred more than 50 acres of dense brush, broke out around 9:15 a.m. and was fanned by strong winds that pushed the flames upward toward a peak called Boney Mountain and away from nearby communities.

Large clouds of gray smoke were visible for miles as crews dropped fire retardant and water on the blaze. Mandatory evacuations remain in effect in the area south of Potrero Road for Lake Sherwood and Hidden Valley.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said. “We still have some incredibly tough conditions ahead of us.”

However, officials said progress is being made on containment of the blaze — which was boosted to 35 percent by Tuesday — mostly in the northern region of the fire. The conflagration has burned about 150 square miles of land.

“To put that in perspective, that is the size of Denver, Colorado,” Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Deputy David Richardson said.

The inferno, which broke out Thursday, quickly tore through a swath of Ventura and Los Angeles counties from Bell Canyon to the Pacific Ocean, obliterating roughly 435 homes and businesses in its path and devastating neighborhoods. Crews that have surveyed about 18 percent of the 96,314-acre burn area confirmed 150 structures have been destroyed, but that number is expected to grow.

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“It’s going to take several more days to get a complete, accurate account of structures lost,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

At Malibu Creek State Park, the landscape was charred black beyond the parking lot, where the burned-out shell of a security vehicle sat. While the campground remained largely untouched, the buildings in the back of the park are gone, as are much of the area that formed the backdrop for shows such as “M.A.S.H.”

Amid the devastation, firefighters were busy Tuesday grappling with a second consecutive day of red-flag conditions, which signify a powerful mix of heat, dry air and winds that could explode a small fire into a deadly inferno. Fire crews had prepared for the possibility of flare-ups and new blazes igniting near the existing Woolsey fire footprint, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Division Chief Chris Anthony.

If an ember flies across fire lines into dense brush while the winds are blowing and humidity is hovering around 8 percent in the area, it is nearly a certainty a fire will ignite, Anthony said. That’s what crews suspect happened with the flare-up near Lake Sherwood.

The fire is quickly chewing through dry, dense brush in steep, rugged terrain. Since fire crews already were nearby, they were able to respond quickly to the latest blaze, Anthony said.

“It’s critically dry with incredibly strong winds, so that really puts us back into a day where we could see rapid fire spread as a result of any new fires or flare-ups,” he said.

Windy conditions are expected to last until late Wednesday, bringing northeast winds from 25 to 40 mph. Gusts are expected to peak at 55 mph Tuesday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.

Tuesday’s flare-up is burning west toward an area that was scorched in the 2013 Springs fire. That will help firefighters, Lorenzen said, because the new growth will be younger and easier to control.

The blaze has already killed at least two people, authorities said.

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A couple whose charred bodies were found in a vehicle in a driveway in Malibu on Friday probably died trying to escape the flames, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Guillermo Morales said Monday.

Investigators are still trying to identify the car’s driver and passenger, both of whom were burned beyond recognition, Morales said. Investigators don’t think the two lived at the home on Mulholland Highway near where their bodies were found. The home’s residents “have been accounted for,” Morales said.

“This driveway looks like a small road. It’s not like a normal driveway, and the whole landscape around there is burned to a crisp. We think they were probably overcome by the flames,” Morales said.

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(Times staff writers Javier Panzar and Richard Winton contributed to this report.)

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