Fear stretches across south­ern Cal­i­for­nia as fires roar from Ven­tura to San Diego

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Scott Wil­son, Mark Berman and Eli Rosen­berg WASHINGTON POST

CARPINTERIA, Calif. – Fire con­tin­ued to tear across south­ern Cal­i­for­nia on Thurs­day, sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties and shroud­ing much of the re­gion in sear­ing flame and thick, choking smoke.

And where there was no fire, there was fear.

Fear of what could come next as wild­fires rav­aged the state for a fourth day. Fear of what could hap­pen if the winds shifted, if the flames moved, if new blazes erupted and were strength­ened by the pow­er­ful gusts al­ready fu­el­ing the in­fer­nos burn­ing across the re­gion.

Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple fled their homes, run­ning from fires with­out any idea of when they could re­turn or what they might find when they do. They grabbed pets, clothes and me­men­tos be­fore hur­ry­ing off in search of shel­ter.

Vet­eran fire­fight­ers de­scribed some the blazes – at least five sep­a­rate fires in the re­gion – as un­like any­thing they had ever en­coun­tered. Thou­sands of fire­fight­ers and other first re­spon­ders fanned out to save lives, pro­tect homes and shepherd peo­ple to safety, joined by re­in­force­ments that flocked in from other parts of the coun­try.

Au­thor­i­ties had not re­ported any deaths due to the blazes by Thurs­day, but they spoke bluntly about the dan­ger that re­mained through week’s end. While the most se­vere winds are fore­cast to slacken to­day and Satur­day, less­en­ing the fire dan­ger some, the Na­tional Weather Service cau­tions the risk of fires will re­main el­e­vated through Sun­day as con­di­tions re­main ab­nor­mally dry and breezy.

“We are a long way from be­ing out of this weather event,” Ken Pim­lott, di­rec­tor of Cal Fire, said at a brief­ing Thurs­day. “In some cases, the worst could be yet to come in terms of the wind.”

The Na­tional Weather Service warned that if new fires do be­gin, they could spread rapidly. The warn­ing ap­peared to be borne out on Thurs­day in San Diego County, where a blaze, dubbed the Lilac Fire, grew to 2,500 acres in just a few hours and prompted manda­tory evac­u­a­tions. Of­fi­cials warned it was grow­ing dan­ger­ously fast and said it threat­ened 1,000 struc­tures. Aerial footage taken from a news he­li­copter showed it burn­ing through what lo­cal news re­ports iden­ti­fied as a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity.

The mas­sive Thomas Fire, the state’s big­gest ac­tive blaze, con­tin­ued to burn ac­tively with what of­fi­cials said was “ex­treme rates of spread,” across 150 square miles in Ven­tura County on Thurs­day.

Flames from that fire sur­rounded Ojai, the pop­u­lar win­ter re­treat that is home to about 8,000 peo­ple, on Thurs­day morn­ing, of­fi­cials said. Most of the Ojai Val­ley had been placed un­der a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion order.

More than 100 fire trucks from sev­eral states had parked at the Ven­tura County Fair­grounds, fire­fight­ers stand­ing or sit­ting aside their equip­ment as they took breaks from bat­tling fires in nearby Ojai the night be­fore, winds whip­ping in off the ocean as they rested.

“This breeze is noth­ing,” said Shane Nollsch, who had trav­eled from Lyon County, Nev., ar­riv­ing at 3 a.m. Wed­nes­day. “Yes­ter­day, you had to chew the air be­fore you breathed it.”

Chris Ma­son, a firefighter from Car­son City, Nev., said those who came to help had to ad­just to dif­fer­ent ter­rain and a new en­vi­ron­ment. Dif­fer­ent winds. Dif­fer­ent fu­els.

“It’s a sharp learn­ing curve,” Ma­son said. “Fire is com­ing down the moun­tain at you, es­pe­cially at night, when it’s hard to see and you don’t know where the streets are.”

La Con­chita, a tiny town hard against coastal High­way 101 north­west of Ven­tura, was threat­ened by flames early Thurs­day. The town most com­monly faces dan­ger from mud­slides, but those same cliffs that give way with rain are now a rich “fuel bed” for the wild­fires. Fire crews man­aged to keep the blaze from the town’s edge, but new lines, fanned by off-shore winds, re­mained a peril.

That blaze – the Thomas Fire – ex­tended dozens of miles from near Santa Paula in Ven­tura County to the edge of Carpinteria, a city of 13,000 peo­ple, a stiff­en­ing wind pos­ing the most threat. Gusts picked up flames low on coastal moun­tain slopes and drove them up and over hills to­ward sev­eral towns along the Pa­cific Ocean.

Santa Bar­bara County be­gan urg­ing evac­u­a­tions, or­der­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple to leave ar­eas along the Pa­cific Ocean be­tween the larger cities of Santa Bar­bara and Ven­tura.

Along Rin­con Moun­tain Road a few miles south of Carpinteria, fire crews fought sev­eral lines of flames overnight Wed­nes­day and through­out Thurs­day, fo­cused on pro­tect­ing homes and ranches. A dozen Ven­tura County fire en­gines staged along the road near mid­day, the fire burn­ing in the av­o­cado and cit­rus or­chards along the ridge-line above.

Tall stands of eu­ca­lyp­tus shook with the strength­en­ing wind, which was driv­ing the flames to­ward sev­eral mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar homes, a brew­ery and a small vineyard. Two he­li­copters buzzed over­head, tail­ing “bambi buck­ets” be­neath. The buck­ets open from the bot­tom, scoop­ing up loads of wa­ter from the Pa­cific and Lake Ca­sitas to drop near threat­ened homes and build­ings. In all, about 30 homes were in im­me­di­ate dan­ger.

Fred Bur­ris, a Ven­tura County Fire Depart­ment bat­tal­ion chief, was fin­ish­ing a 24-hour shift that in­cluded help­ing to pro­tect La Con­chita. Only one out­build­ing was lost early Thurs­day, he said, but new fire lines were pop­ping up. “We’re ba­si­cally de­fend­ing an area with homes and ranch in­fra­struc­ture, see­ing a new fire emerge along this stretch, then split­ting off re­sources to send there – that’s the strat­egy,” Bur­ris said.

New York Times

Fire­fight­ers put out smol­der­ing fires in homes de­stroyed by the Thomas Fire on Wed­nes­day in the foothills of Ven­tura, Calif. Si­mul­ta­ne­ous wild­fires have forced the evac­u­a­tion of tens of thou­sands of peo­ple and de­stroyed hun­dreds of homes and other build­ings.

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