By Alex Dobuzinskis
VENTURA, Calif. (Reuters) - Exhausted fire crews made little headway on Friday in containing the most troublesome of six major wildfires burning in South California as dry winds fanned flames that ravaged avocado farms, racehorse stables and a retirement community.
Forecasters predicted weather would continue to challenge the 8,700 firefighters who have been battling fast-moving blazes for five days from the San Diego area up the Pacific Coast to Santa Barbara County. At least 500 structures have been destroyed, six people hurt, four firefighters injured and 212,000 people forced to flee their homes.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday issued a federal emergency declaration for California, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security to coordinate relief efforts.
Two of the most dangerous fires, in Ventura County and San Diego County, were not at all contained, the CAL FIRE agency reported. Billions of dollars in property is at risk.
"Critical fire weather is expected to continue for the next few days. Firefighters continue their aggressive firefighting!" the Ventura County Fire Department said on Twitter.
But the department reported "great progress" in certain areas.
North of San Diego, the Lilac Fire swelled from 10 acres to 4,100 acres (1,659 hectares) in a few hours on Thursday, prompting Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency for San Diego County. The fire destroyed 65 structures.
Fallbrook, known for its avocado orchards, burnt, and homes were destroyed in its Rancho Monserate Country Club retirement community. Blazes approached the Camp Pendleton marine base.
A 500-stall stable for thoroughbred race horses at San Luis Rey Downs training site burnt late on Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported.
An estimated 25 to 30 horses died, in addition to 29 horses killed in Los Angeles earlier in the week. A trainer suffered second- and third-degree burns over half her body trying to rescue horses, the newspaper said. She was airlifted to a San Diego hospital and placed in a medically induced coma.
Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, a racetrack in a beachside community north of San Diego, said it was providing refuge for more than 900 animals, mostly horses as well as some goats and pigs. A horse hospital was being opened on Friday.
On Twitter, animal lovers sought to reunite lost dogs with their owners and posted pleas for residents in the Los Angeles area to put out water for wild animals fleeing the fires.
A 19-year-old man became a social media hero after he jumped out of his car earlier in the week to help a wild rabbit on a freeway as flames approached. “I just felt bad, so I just ran out of the car. I was screaming!” Oscar Gonzalez told NBC LA on Friday.
SMOKE VISIBLE FROM SPACE
The largest of the blazes, known as the Thomas Fire, was in Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles, and has charred 132,000 acres (53,418 hectares) and destroyed 439 structures, officials said. More than 2,600 firefighters from as far away as Portland, Oregon, and Nevada, made progress against the blaze with 10 percent contained, up from 5 percent on Thursday.
A huge plume of smoke flared from the fire in the Ventura County mountains on Friday and was visible on satellite images, the National Weather Service said. Astronauts have captured images showing the wildfires' smoke visible from space.
CAL FIRE spokesman David Clark said personnel were concentrating around the Ventura County towns of Ojai, which had flames on three sides, and Santa Paula.
The Santa Ana winds, which blow hot and dry across Southern California to the Pacific, eased up on Friday, ranging from 5 miles per hour (8 km per hour) to 35 mph (56 kph). That turned out to be a mixed blessing for firefighters because the lingering smoke limited the use of water-dropping aircraft.
"No wind is good because it decreases the fire activity but if it’s too smoky to drive and see where you’re going, it’s too smoky to fly," Clark said.
Some 86,000 homes were at risk in the three large fires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, according to CoreLogic Inc a California-based risk analysis firm, with reconstruction possibly totalling $27.7 billion (£20.7 billion).
California is still recovering from wildfires in the northern part of the state that resulted in insured losses of more than $9 billion in October. Those fires, which were concentrated in California's wine country, killed 43 people.
(For a graphic on Southern California wildfires, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2ADhxIj)
(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; writing by Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Shumaker)