Preparedness & Recovery

Ventura Wildfire Rages Over 45,000 Acres, Destroys More than 150 Structures, Triggers Evacuation of 27,000

There was no containment on the fire as of 7 a.m., with 1,000 firefighters battling the blaze and more on the way.

by Alene Tchekmedyian, Jaclyn Cosgrove, Ruben Vives and Sonali Kohli, Los Angeles Times / December 5, 2017
Hawaiian Gardens apartment complex on fire as brush fires move quickly with Santa Ana winds in Ventura, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. TNS/Marcus Yam

(TNS) — A fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept into the city of Ventura early Tuesday, burning 45,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing 27,000 people to evacuate.

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.

But the destruction appears to be much worse as the sun rose Tuesday, revealing fire sweeping through whole neighborhoods in the hills above Ventura.

There was no containment on the fire as of 7 a.m., with 1,000 firefighters battling the blaze and more on the way, said Ventura County Sheriff’s spokesman Tim Lochman. One helicopter was dropping water and authorities were hoping winds would die down so they could deploy fixed-wing aircraft soon, he said.

The wind appeared to be pushing the fire east toward Camarillo and north toward Ojai, Lochman said.

The fire started near California State Highway 150 Monday evening and spread into Santa Paula. From there, the fire followed Foothill Road from Santa Paula to Ventura, taking out homes and winding along canyons in the process.

On Tuesday firefighters will continue trying to save homes in Ventura, where flames are actively burning. They face a red-flag wind advisory that notes ridge line 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, burning some homes and sparing others. Some residents sensed the the worst might be over in the early hours of the morning when winds died down. But they picked up with a fury around daybreak, causing more destruction.

Engulfed in flames, the Hawaiian Village Apartments 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 is at the hospital being evaluated, 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 will all be closed Tuesday.

California authorities have secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist in firefighting efforts, the California Governor’s 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 fire is actively burning in the city of Ventura and there are homes and buildings actively burning at this time,” Ventura County Sheriff Sgt. Eric Buschow said.

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.

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.

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 one dog had died, Quirarte said.

At least 1,000 homes in Ventura, Santa Paula and Ojai were evacuated.

More than 260,000 customers in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties were without power. As of 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, a Southern California Edison spokeswoman did not know when power would be restored.

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 another by himself, using a regular garden hose.

Urban said he and his wife began evacuating their home around 11 p.m. and headed to the Ventura Fairgrounds. Around 1 a.m., though, Urban returned to his home to grab more belongings, and decided to stay and defend their Spanish style home with a hose.

“I just kept hitting the hot spots,” Urban said.

About 2 a.m., Karen Kwan-Holt stood near Ventura High School and watched her neighbor’s house burn. For 17 years, she’s lived in a hillside home her husband built, with him and their two children.

Hours earlier, the family packed up their precious items, including photographs and their guinea pigs, Guinea Penny and Gert.

“It’s a house that was built with love,” she said, watching the tree between her neighbor’s home and her home catch fire. “We’re just hoping for the best.”

In Santa Paula around the same time, residents were already awake and alert when a police cruiser inched through their neighborhood, announcing mandatory evacuations. At least one woman in a white robe stopped the cruiser and asked how close the fire was to the neighborhood.

“It’s coming across this way,” the officer said.

Nearby, Mike Medina stood by Say and Roger roads, watching the flames slowly making their way down the canyon through a gap of tree branches and snapping a photo.

Earlier in the day, when the fire broke out, Medina said he was returning home from work at Costco in Oxnard when his 73-year-old mother called him.

“She told me, ‘I could see flames in the back of our yard,’” he said. He said he knew his father, an amputee, would need help getting out.

Medina drove straight to his parents’ home. When he got there, he saw flames in the distance. The winds, strong enough to shove a person, picked up dust. He stayed with his parents until authorities ordered them to leave.

Medina said a wildfire had burned down his parents’ home in the early 1980s. They rebuilt it, and now he wondered if it was still standing.

“To see it almost burn, they must be losing their minds,” he said.

Numerous spot fires erupted as a result of the difficult conditions.

About 12:45 a.m., Karen McCleery stood in her driveway near plastic candy canes and other Christmas decorations, watching the fire burn a nearby hillside.

Like many of her neighbors in Foothill Heights, just south of Foothill Road in Ventura, McCleery took comfort that the fire had one more hill it would have to burn before reaching their neighborhood. Nevertheless, many wondered when it would be time to leave.

She said she lost power about 6 p.m. Monday.

“That was our first sign,” McCleery, 65, said. “And then you could just see it racing across the ridge.”

Not far from McCleery’s home, Eddie Barragan, 43, and his wife Maria, 39, sat in folding camp chairs at the corner of North Wells Road and Loma Vista Road.

The couple had been watching the fire for four hours as family members waited inside their home. Barragan, an iron worker who has worked as a wildland firefighter, said he was studying the flames and paying attention to how the wind shifted.

“If it comes over this next ridge, or the wind shifts, it takes one ember to get on one of these houses, and there it goes,” he said.

The blaze started about 6:25 p.m. Monday in the foothills near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, a popular hiking destination, and 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.

Since shortly before 7 p.m. Monday, firefighters were in place to protect homes along Highway 150 just north of Santa Paula, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Stan Ziegler. Within an hour, the fire grew from 50 to 500 acres.

Evacuation centers were opened at Nordhoff High School at 1401 Maricopa Highway in Ojai and at the Ventura County Fairgrounds at 10 W. Harbor Blvd. in Ventura.

Ventura County Fire staffed an extra 100 or so firefighters in anticipation of strong winds that triggered a red-flag warning in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Weather officials said those regions could see gusts of 50 to 70 mph Monday night into Tuesday.

“This is exactly what we have prepared for,” Ziegler said. “This is not a surprise by any means.”

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