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Southern California fires force 200,000 people to flee

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Hundreds of Los Angeles area schools shut their doors on Thursday as raging wildfires wreaked havoc on Southern California, forcing about 200,000 people to flee and destroying hundreds of houses.

Authorities feared the four major fires would be whipped up by the region’s notorious westward Santa Ana winds that could reach hurricane strength.

The winds, which blow in hot and dry from the California desert, could reach 75 miles per hour (120 kph) on Thursday and create “extreme fire danger,” according to an alert sent by the countywide emergency system in Los Angeles.

The fires, which broke out on Monday and Tuesday, have reached into the wealthy enclave of Bel-Air on Los Angeles’ West Side while creating traffic nightmares in the densely populated area.

No civilian casualties or fatalities have been reported but three firefighters were injured, the Los Angeles Fire Department said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second largest with more than 640,000 students, said it closed at least 265 of its nearly 1,100 schools.

Dozens of schools also were closed in neighboring Ventura County, where the largest of the area blazes, the Thomas Fire, has charred more than 96,000 acres (38,850 hectares). The school district, with nearly 17,000 students, hoped to reopen on Monday.

“But that will only happen if a number of factors are in place that will guarantee the health and safety of our students and staff,” Ventura Unified School District Superintendent Dave Creswell said in a statement.

Video and photographs on social media showed towering flame-covered hillsides along busy roadways on Wednesday as commuters slowly made their way to work or home, rows of houses reduced to ash and firefighters spraying water on walls of fire as they tried to save houses.

A photo taken from the International Space Station and moved on social media by astronaut Randy Bresnik shows smoke rising from wildfire burning in Southern…

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