Ferocious wildfires ravage southern California, evacuating communities and destroying homes
OJAI, Calif. — The flames came from all sides, tearing across cliffs and roaring down mountains, burning through homes and engulfing cars. Entire communities were evacuated, forcing people to grab what they could and flee as raging wildfires spread rapidly across southern California on Wednesday.
Yet even as they scrambled for shelter from the choking smoke and flames that shrouded idyllic communities in apocalyptic imagery, many worried about the dangers still to come. Officials warned that the wildfire threat could increase through the end of the week, with the same weather conditions fueling the fires forecast to intensify.
The wildfires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties have so far forced tens of thousands to escape, destroying hundreds of structures, emptying homes, hospitals, schools and multimillion-dollar mansions alike. In Ventura, the Thomas Fire burned across 65,000 acres on Wednesday, spreading through an area roughly the size of Orlando. Los Angeles County faced comparatively smaller blazes in the Rye and Creek fires, both of which erupted Tuesday north of downtown Los Angeles.
A new blaze, known as the Skirball Fire, began Wednesday morning in Bel Air, shutting down Interstate 405 - one of the country's busiest freeways - and forcing evacuations across the posh neighborhood and areas near the University of California Los Angeles campus. Officials confronted that growing fire while still facing the Creek Fire, which had crept into the city.
"Our plan here is to try to stop this fire before it becomes something bigger, so that we don't have to have . . . a two-front war," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, D, said at a news briefing. "These are days that break your heart. But these are also days that show the resilience of our city."
That resilience could face serious tests in coming days. The National Weather Service said that increased winds are expected overnight into Thursday, which could make southern California vulnerable to new fires and "extreme fire behavior," with conditions potentially worsening throughout the day. The dangerous fire conditions have been fueled by Santa Ana winds, dry weather, and parched vegetation - the combination enabling wildfires that have grown wildly.
Not far from the Skirball Fire, residents and visitors alike were weighing whether to stay or go. Two roommates who live in the Brentwood area packed their bags and were "just hanging tight," said one of the men, 23-year-old Wes Luttrell. Montevis Price, who was visiting Los Angeles from Miami, promptly checked out of his hotel when he saw the blaze.
"I saw the little mountain on fire and that was it," Price said. "You can prepare for a hurricane, but you can't prepare for something that happens all of a sudden."
California Gov. Jerry Brown, D, declared states of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties due to the fires, and his office said the blazes threatened thousands of homes. Firefighters and other first responders fanned out across the region to save lives, protect homes and evacuate residents. By Wednesday afternoon, officials said no deaths have been recorded as a result of the blazes, but some areas that had burned were not yet accessible.
Day appeared as night along the coast, the smoke-masked sun casting a deep red light. Flames burned down chaparral-covered cliffs toward Highway 101 from Santa Barbara north to Ventura, the blaze blowing over in nighttime winds from the valleys to the east.
"When you get those 40-to 50-mile-per-hour winds, the fire just rolls like a steam train and you have minutes to get to safety," said Ventura City Councilman Erik Nasarenko.
He was in a city council meeting on Tuesday when the evacuation order came.
"It was crazy," Nasarenko said. "In the middle of the council meeting, the city manager tells me our neighborhood is on mandatory evacuation, so I raced home, grabbed the guinea pig and the kids and bolted."
Officials said the wildfire that forced evacuations of portions of Ojai, a popular winter retreat with about 8,000 residents, began burning toward Santa Barbara on Wednesday.
For some, the flames had already consumed nearly everything they had.
The fire began beneath David and Theresa Brock's house in upper Ojai around sundown Monday, jumping the road and sprinting up toward them. But a shifting wind pushed it away within a few hundred yards, and the couple believed their home of 12 years was safe. They stayed up through the night, smoke covering the grounds around them.
"I thought we were doing great, real great," said Brock, a state-certified operator of public water systems.
At about 4 a.m. Tuesday, the winds shifted again. The fire raced toward them, covering five miles in 15 minutes. Brock turned to Theresa and said, "Let's get outside in the dirt." The couple keeps cattle, and the wide, grazed area outside their hilltop home acted as a natural fire break.
"At least out here," he told her, "there's nothing to catch fire."
As the couple watched the flames approach, a transformer blew adjacent to their home, igniting a pepper tree. Sparks were sucked into their attic.
"Then we saw smoke coming out of the vent," Brock, 57, said. "And I thought, 'well, that's it, we can't save it now.'"
Brock pulled his Ford Torino and tractor out of the garage, keeping them in the fire break, and with the help of firemen, managed to pull a few items out of his house.
"But what do you take?" he said. He chose a few family photos, but the cedar chest where Theresa kept all the family documents burned.
"Then I just stood back and watched," he said. "You see these people on TV who have lost everything, and you can't imagine it, until it's you. Now I am that person. I have the clothes on my back."
Others felt the fear of what could come next.
"I'm scared," said Beth Dorenkamp, a 25-year Ojai resident. "I saw the fire start at the east end of town, like a plume, but I never thought it would end up like this."
Dorenkamp and Kathe Hanson huddled on a chilly morning at the Riverview Ranch in the Meiners Oaks neighborhood, which had been threatened but spared Tuesday as the Thomas Fire grew. The women keep horses at the ranch, and spent a mostly sleepless Tuesday night keeping watch over them.
"We all have trailers ready to go, but all of the roads are closed," said Hanson, masked against the falling ash, holding the reins of her horse, Mozart. "So we're sleeping in the barn and waiting to see what happens."
Around the property, F-250s and Tundra pickups were hitched to trailers, ready to evacuate some of the 80 horses stabled there. The escape route had narrowed significantly, though, with some of the roads north into Santa Barbara County threatened by fire.
Word of mouth appeared the most common form of neighborhood newsgathering, with cell service spotty in the best of times in these high canyons, the power unstable because of the fire, and the Internet out in parts of the city.
The Carver family fled their home in Meiners Oak on Tuesday morning with flames less than half a mile from their property.
"We'd been up all night watching it," said Cindy Carver, who with her husband, Thomas, and their two children, Caleb and Danika, moved to Ojai about eight years ago.
The family's power had gone out, and Thomas, a ham radio operator, used a radio repeater on Sulfur Mountain as an indicator of how close the flames were and which direction they were heading. If the repeater failed, he would leave with his family. It remained active all night.
Preparations began before dawn. Thomas, a family therapist, let the turkeys, goats and chickens the family raises loose in their pens. He and Cindy grabbed the passports, a couple wedding photos, a little cash and jewelry and corralled the kids into the camper. They also grabbed Hondo and Jetta, two rescue dogs, their four cats and 10 kittens.
"There was a point where I just thought I was going to lose it, and then we all said, it's just stuff," Thomas said.
Caleb, 12, and Danika, 8, attend Ojai Valley School, which was closed like the others in the area. The upper campus was damaged on Tuesday, when a girl's dormitory burned down along with several other buildings. But the students had been evacuated early, which Cindy praised.
The day off from school seemed by turns fun and frightening, given the uncertainty the afternoon and evening held. The family is keeping their camper in a parking lot, and heading home in quick visits to eat and shower.
Caleb said he was amazed that as they left home, everything around him seemed to be taking place as it did any other day - a guy riding his bicycle through the smoke, a hiker on a nearby nature preserve trail.
"How are people so normal about this?" he said.
Berman reported from Washington. Noah Smith in Los Angeles; William Dauber in Van Nuys, Calif.; and Jason Samenow in Washington contributed to this report, which has been updated throughout the day.
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