South­ern Cal­i­for­nia fire burns scores of homes

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - NATION - BY JONATHAN J. COOPER AND AN­DREW DAL­TON

MAL­IBU, Calif. — Two peo­ple were found dead and scores of houses from the celebrity man­sions of Mal­ibu to the mo­bile homes of se­niors in the sub­urbs burned in a pair of wild­fires that stretched across more than 100 square miles of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, au­thor­i­ties said Satur­day.

The two bod­ies were found in a sparsely pop­u­lated stretch of Mul­hol­land High­way in Mal­ibu, but Los Angeles County sher­iff’s Chief John Bene­dict of­fered no fur­ther de­tails.

Fire­fight­ers have saved thou­sands of homes de­spite work­ing in “ex­treme, tough fire con­di­tions that they said they have never seen in their life,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

Those vi­cious con­di­tions Fri­day night gave way to calm Satur­day, with winds re­duced to breezes.

Fire­fight­ers used the lull to try to rein in the pow­er­ful blaze that had grown to 109 square miles and get a grasp of how much dam­age it did in its first two days.

Osby said losses to homes were “sig­nif­i­cant” but did not say how many had burned. Of­fi­cials said ear­lier that 150 houses had been de­stroyed and the num­ber would rise. Some 250,000 homes are un­der evac­u­a­tion or­ders across the re­gion.

Fire burned in fa­mously ritzy coastal spots such as Mal­ibu, where Lady Gaga, Kim Kar­dashian West, Guillermo del Toro and Martin Sheen were among those forced out of their homes amid a city­wide evac­u­a­tion or­der.

But the flames also burned in­land through hills and canyons dot­ted with mod­est homes, reached into the cor­ner of the San Fer­nando Val­ley in Los Angeles, and stretched into sub­urbs such as Thou­sand Oaks, a city of 130,000 peo­ple that just a few days ago saw 12 peo­ple killed in a mass shoot­ing at a coun­try mu­sic bar.

Wild­fire raged on both sides of the city still in mourn­ing, where some three-quar­ters of the pop­u­la­tion are un­der evac­u­a­tion or­ders that of­fi­cials urged them to heed.

“We’ve had a lot of tragedy in our com­mu­nity,” said Ven­tura County Su­per­vi­sor Linda Parks, whose dis­trict in­cludes Thou­sand Oaks. “We don’t want any more. We do not want any more lives lost.”

Res­i­dents couldn’t be­lieve their city, known to few out­side Cal­i­for­nia a week ago, could sud­denly be gripped by two si­mul­ta­ne­ous hor­rors.

“It’s like ‘welcome to hell,’” Cyn­thia Ball said out­side a teen cen­ter serv­ing as a shel­ter for evac­uees. “I don’t even know what to say. It’s like we’re all walk­ing around kind of in a trance.”

At the edge of Thou­sand Oaks in New­bury Park at a mo­bile home for se­niors, the fire came so quickly that res­i­dents had no time to gather med­i­ca­tions and doc­u­ments. Fire­fight­ers car­ried peo­ple from homes and put them in empty seats of their neigh­bors’ cars, said Carol Napoli, 74.

Napoli left with her friend, the friend’s son and her mother who is in her 90s and had to leave be­hind her oxy­gen tank.

“We drove through flames to get out. They had us in like a car­a­van,” Napoli said. “My girl­friend was driv­ing. She said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this …’ Her son said, ‘Mom you have to, you have to drive through the flames.’”

Ben Watkins also drove through flames, but he was try­ing to get back home, not leave it.

He was headed from Santa Bar­bara to Los Angeles when fire brought traf­fic to a dead stop and he de­cided to wait it out on a beach in Mal­ibu, watch­ing as the blaze drew closer.

Fi­nally, he de­cided to make a run for it, hop­ping in his ve­hi­cle and driv­ing home through flames that lapped at the Pa­cific Coast High­way.

“It’s sur­vival mode,” Watkins said. “You’re think­ing about how you have to get home at all costs.”

The area burn­ing in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia is in se­vere drought, U.S. gov­ern­ment an­a­lysts said. Cal­i­for­nia emerged from a five-year statewide drought last year but has had a very dry 2018, push­ing parts of the state back into drought and leav­ing oth­ers, such as the area of the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia fire, ab­nor­mally dry.

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