Ventura County fire explodes to more than 45K acres, state of emergency declared as homes burn
A fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept into the city of Ventura early Tuesday, burning 45,500 acres, destroying homes and forcing 27,000 people to evacuate.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Ventura County on Tuesday morning.
“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 is sending 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.
There was no containment on the fire as of 10 a.m., with 1,000 firefighters battling the blaze and more on the way, said Ventura County Sheriff’s Department 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.
Around 7 a.m., the wind appeared to be pushing the fire east toward Camarillo and north toward Ojai, Lochman said.
The fire started near Highway 150 on 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 the fire was active. They face 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, 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 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 fire is actively burning in the city of Ventura and there are homes and buildings actively burning at this time,” Sheriff’s Sgt. Buschow said Tuesday morning.
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, 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 4:55 a.m. Tuesday, all of Santa Barbara’s Southern California Edison customers’ power had been restored, but 20,000 homes in Ventura County were still without power, said Southern California Edison spokeswoman Sally Jeun.
More homes may lose power as the fires continue to spread.
“Some customers in the fire-affected areas should be prepared to be without power for days because of the damage,” Jeun said. “Our priority is to restore the transmission system or to reroute power from unaffected areas to impacted areas.”
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.”
Numerous spot fires erupted as a result of the difficult conditions
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.
“This is exactly what we have prepared for,” Ziegler said. “This is not a surprise by any means.”
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).
“We just had to go,” Gonzalez said. “We didn’t know how fast it was going to come.”
Gonzalez stood in a neighbor’s driveway in Santa Paula, clutching her phone in both hands as she recorded video of the Thomas fire moving down a hillside, toward her home.
For hours, flames had been creeping down the hill, leaving trees and chaparral blackened and smoldering. Gonzalez's house – the tan one with the big brown porch – stood untouched, but flames burned about 40 feet away. She tried not to cry as a gust of wind fanned the flames closer.
“You work so hard all your life, and now this,” Gonzalez said. “But what can you do? Fire is fire.”
Others 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.
Around 10 a.m., the family heard that for now, their home was safe