Southern California fire is ‘out of control,’ forcing thousands to evacuate

(CNN) -- Pushed by powerful Santa Ana winds, a fire spread with explosive speed to more than 30,000 acres Monday night and early Tuesday in Southern California's Ventura County, destroying dozens of buildings and forcing thousands to evacuate in the dark.

The fire began north of Santa Paula on Monday evening and spread into the edges of Ventura, a city of more than 100,000 people situated on the Pacific coast, the county sheriff's office said.

The fast-moving fire forced sheriff's deputies to scramble into neighborhoods and knock on doors to warn residents to evacuate.

By early Tuesday the fire had burned 31,000 acres in nine hours -- covering an area more than twice the size of Manhattan at a rate of nearly an acre per second.

Latest developments

• About 150 buildings have been destroyed, the sheriff's office said, and more than 7,700 homes in Ventura and Santa Paula were under mandatory evacuation as fire officials warned the powerful winds could push flames further into Ventura.

• A dead animal was found at the site of a rollover car crash near the evacuation zone Monday night, Ventura fire officials said. Initially, authorities reported that a person had died there, but they later clarified that no human body had been found.

 At the fire's roughly acre-per-second burn rate overnight into early Tuesday, it would have covered Manhattan's Central Park in about 15 minutes.

• "The fire is still out of control and structures are threatened throughout the fire area," the Ventura County Sheriff's Office said on a local emergency preparedness website. "Due to the intensity of the fire, crews are having trouble making access, but there are multiple reports of structures on fire."

• The blaze ignited after officials warned of extreme fire danger in the area due to the Santa Ana winds, blowing as fast as 40 to 60 mph.

• Expected strong winds Tuesday threaten to make the situation worse, with gusts of 50 to 60 mph possible.

Thousands without power

The fire also burned down power lines, at one point leaving more than 260,000 homes and businesses without power in Ventura County and neighboring Santa Barbara County, said Susan Cox, a spokeswoman for Southern California Edison.

By early Tuesday, power had been restored to all but 20,000 customers -- but more outages were possible because flames were burning along power transmission paths, Cox said.

The brush fire, called the Thomas Fire, was reported at Steckel Park, just north of Santa Paula, around 6:30 p.m. local time, according to initial reports to the Ventura County Fire Department.

Within a few hours, the fire jumped to thousands of acres as winds carried its embers. The fire engulfed dry chaparral and climbed through steep terrain.

As the fire spread, the nearby hills glowed a fiery orange as residents in Santa Paula threw a few of their belongings into cars to evacuate, according to video footage from CNN affiliates.

Because it was night and heavy winds were blowing, authorities couldn't use the eight air tankers and six helicopters to help battle the wildfire.

"We'll have them as soon as light is out, and they can safely fly," Lorenzen said.

More than 500 firefighters were battling the blaze Tuesday morning.

Officials shut State Route 150, between Ojai and Santa Paula, due to the fires. All students at the Thomas Aquinas College, a private Catholic college in Santa Paula, were evacuated Monday night, the school said on Twitter. The college and the Santa Paula and Ventura school districts announced their closures Tuesday.

Two evacuation centers were opened for residents who had to leave their homes.

Hours into the disaster, California's Office of Emergency Services secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency early Tuesday to fight the fire.