Calif. Residents Flee as 1,000 Firefighters Battle Flames
Los Angeles Times
Dec. 06—A fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept into the city of Ventura early Tuesday, burning 50,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing more than 27,000 people to evacuate.
About 3,000 homes were evacuated, a firefighter was injured and Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Ventura County on Tuesday morning, as some 1,000 personnel continued to battle the Thomas fire.
Firefighters had not achieved any containment on the fire as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, as authorities expanded mandatory and voluntary evacuation areas and opened new shelters throughout the county.
"This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly, but we'll continue to attack it with all we've got," Brown said. "It's critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so."
The state sent resources to help with firefighting efforts. Ventura County officials have asked the state for eight fixed-wing firefighting aircraft to help douse the flames, said Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Donoghue.
At least 150 structures—including at least one large apartment complex and the Vista Del Mar Hospital, a psychiatric facility—were consumed by flames, and many more were threatened.
The blaze started about 6:25 p.m. Monday in the foothills near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, a popular hiking destination. It grew wildly to more than 15 square miles in the hours that followed—consuming vegetation that hasn't burned in decades, Ventura County Fire Sgt. Eric Buschow said.
"The burn area is pretty much all the mountains between Ventura and Ojai and extending east to Santa Paula," said Ventura County Sheriff Sgt. Kevin Donoghue. "It's a challenge because of the enormity of it, and it's a challenge because it's pretty rugged terrain."
Power outages also caused problems for firefighters Monday night and rendered some pumping systems inoperable, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Steve Kaufmann. Some hydrants couldn't get water pumped to them because there was no power, he said.
At one point in Ojai, the entire water system went down, including hydrants and drinking water, because a pumping system was damaged by the fire, Kaufmann said.
On Tuesday morning the water district had sent people to Ventura to repair the problems, but he did not know status of the repair.
"It definitely presented a challenge to us," he said.
By 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, authorities had ordered a mandatory evacuation of the entire community of Casitas Springs, northwest of Ventura. The evacuation area spreads from the northern portion of Highway 33 into Ojai, said Ventura County Fire Department Capt. Stan Ziegler. The county also issued a voluntary evacuation order for all parts of Ojai Valley not under mandatory evacuation.
In addition to the Ventura County Fairgrounds in Ventura and Nordhoff High School in Ojai, evacuation centers have been set up at the Oxnard College gymnasium and Santa Paula Community Center.
The size of the fire will likely grow, Ziegler said. Authorities are still seeing "erratic fire behavior and erratic winds so it's making the firefight very difficult," Ziegler said.
Aircraft are available for firefighting efforts, but will usually only drop retardant when winds are below 30 mph, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Scott McLean.
Around 7 a.m., the wind appeared to be pushing the fire east toward Camarillo and north toward Ojai, Lochman said.
On Tuesday firefighters continued trying to save homes in Ventura, where the fire was active. They faced a red-flag wind advisory that notes ridgeline winds of 35 to 45 mph, with gusts up to 70 mph. Winds are expected to decrease somewhat in the afternoon, said Chad Cook, Ventura County Fire Department division chief.
The fire hopscotched through hillside neighborhoods Monday night, burning some homes and sparing others. Some residents hoped the worst might be over in the early hours of the morning when the wind died down. But it picked up with a fury around daybreak, causing more destruction.
Engulfed in flames, the Hawaiian Village Apartments above central Ventura collapsed about 4 a.m.
Water gushed down North Laurel Street as firefighters worked to put out the flaming complex and residents watched, holding cameras and cellphones. The sound of bursting propane tanks filled the air.
Hundreds of firefighters working through the night tried to prevent the blaze from spreading, block by block, as they were confronted by wind gusts of up to 50 mph.
One firefighter was hit by a car while he was protecting homes. He was at a hospital, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Scott Quirarte.
Fire officials said the intensity of the fire, coupled with the high winds, made it pretty much unstoppable.
Schools in the Oxnard, Ventura, Hueneme and Santa Paula school districts were closed Tuesday.
California authorities have secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist in firefighting efforts, the Office of Emergency Services announced Tuesday morning.
Fire officials expected flames would rip through at least 50,000 acres in the mountains between Santa Paula and Ventura.
The destruction comes in what was already the worst year on record for wildfires in California. In October, 43 people died and more than 10,000 structures were lost when fires swept through Northern California's wine country.
The Thomas fire's movement bears some similarity to Northern California's Tubbs fire, which ravaged the town of Santa Rosa and killed more than 20 people in October, McLean said.
The Thomas fire has moved almost as quickly as the Tubbs did, with winds pushing flames that started north of a community into a city, he said. Like the Tubbs, there are access issues because of the topography, McLean said.
What's different, though, is that authorities began the morning of the Tubbs fire fighting more than a dozen fires in the area, whereas the Thomas fire is currently the greatest threat to Southern California. The Creek fire, near Sylmar, was at 11,000 acres early Tuesday afternoon.
There are no confirmed fatalities in the Thomas fire as of 2 p.m., authorities said.
Southern California has been under red-flag weather conditions since Monday, with "the strongest and longest duration Santa Ana wind event we have seen so far this season" expected through at least Thursday, the National Weather Service said.
The dry, gusty Santa Ana winds will continue for at least the next three days, the National Weather Service said.
"Generally, it's awful fire weather today, tomorrow and Thursday," said Forecaster Ryan Kittell. "The winds we're seeing right now are ... plenty strong to drive a fire."
It doesn't matter that the winds are relatively cool compared to typical Santa Anas because wind gusts are so powerful and dry, he said.
Ventura County fire officials reported Monday night that one person was killed in a traffic accident on a road closed due to the Thomas fire. But at about 6 a.m. Tuesday, authorities said no fatalities were confirmed—although they added that one dog had died.
At least 1,000 homes in Ventura, Santa Paula and Ojai were evacuated.
More than 260,000 customers in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties lost power as the fire raged. By noon Tuesday 15,000 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties were still without power, said Southern California Edison spokesman Paul Netter.
More homes may lose power as the fires continue to spread, and some may be without power for days, Netter said.
"We're encouraging conservation because of the power fluctuations," Netter said. "Every little bit helps when it comes to maintaining power as we restore it."
Just north of Foothill Boulevard, along Hilltop Drive, Mark Urban, 53, took a moment around 7 a.m. to inspect the front of his home, where at least two spot fires had broken out; one was put out by firefighters and the other by himself, using a garden hose.
Urban said he and his wife began evacuating their Spanish-style home around 11 p.m. and headed to the Ventura fairgrounds. Around 1 a.m., though, he returned to grab more belongings and decided to stay to defend their home with a hose, he said.
"I just kept hitting the hot spots," Urban said.
A crowd gathered Tuesday morning in the street at the top of a hilly Santa Paula neighborhood, watching as black smoke and flames crept along a tawny ridge near dozens of white, tan and pink houses.
Gusts ripped red flowers off a bougainvillea and sent flames billowing upward a few hundred feet from houses along Coronado Circle.
Doctors and nurses in scrubs who had stepped out of nearby Santa Paula Hospital put on face masks and pulled out cellphones to record the fire.
The hospital was closed Tuesday to incoming patients and all surgeries were canceled, according to a doctor and a technician who were not authorized to talk to the media. About 16 patients remained in the 28-bed facility and could be quickly evacuated once fire officials give the word, they said.
Beverly Moore stood on 10th Street with a black hoodie drawn tightly over her head to block the strong winds, watching the fire.
Moore moved to Coronado Circle about eight years ago, when the neighborhood was new. She knew fire was a risk, because the street opens onto hundreds of acres of open space that is covered in dry brush, she said. Even so, she wasn't prepared to watch the fire come so close to her house.
In her rush to leave home, Moore said, she'd grabbed her violin, but forgot her jewelry and her daughter's guitar.
Police cars blocked the street, stopping residents from returning to their homes. A Santa Paula police officer allowed Moore back in, telling her to hurry.
She returned 15 minutes later, smiling, her jewelry in a brown shopping bag, her father's will in a manila envelope, and her daughter's guitar slung across her back.
"It's all she wanted," Moore said. "I've done what I could."
By late Tuesday morning, evacuees were beginning to learn the fate of their homes.
Darlene Gonzalez and her husband scrambled to evacuate Monday by 6 p.m., just after they got off work. They fled with clothes, passports and other paperwork, but left her husband's most cherished possessions in the garage: A 1959 Chevrolet El Camino, and a 1928 Ford ("A Bonnie and Clyde car," Gonzalez said).
"You work so hard all your life, and now this," Gonzalez said. "But what can you do? Fire is fire."
At least two buildings on the campus of Vista Del Mar Hospital burned down as the Thomas fire ravaged the canyons above Ventura.
The hospital treats adolescents and adults with mental health issues, and among its specialties is treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Patients were evacuated and by Tuesday morning, two buildings were completely destroyed by flames, with the rubble of stucco walls and clay roofs smoldering under the smoky sky.
"There's a huge need for this facility," said Roger Case, 76, explaining that it welcomes patients from Fresno to the San Fernando Valley. Case is an advisory board member.
In addition to serving about 80 patients at a time, the facility also employs about 230 people.
Many have found their way to evacuation centers, waiting out the fire.
Inside the shelter at the Ventura County fairgrounds Tuesday morning, some volunteers handed out water and bananas to evacuees who spent the night. Others grabbed the green cots that crowded the concrete floor and walked them over to the larger livestock shelter where the evacuees were being moved.
Rudy Avendano and his family voluntarily evacuated their home on Richmond Road around 3 a.m. His daughter, Felicia, had woken up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom when she saw flashing lights on the street.
She stepped outside and asked the police if they were being evacuated.
"We strongly suggest it," she remembered the officer saying.
She quickly woke her parents and two sisters. They grabbed the items they packed earlier in the day—clothes, blankets, documents, photo albums and a mandolin—and jumped into their cars with their pitbull-Labrador mix, Bear.
Avendano, 60, said he saw a continuous ribbon of orange flames licking the hills on the drive to the fairgrounds.
Throughout the drive, he said, he thought of the extra food he should have thrown in the car. A gallon of Sunny Delight and a box of crackers from Trader Joe's weren't enough, he said with a laugh.