Thou­sands flee as Calif. wild­fires rage and spread, killing at least 9

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOEL ACHENBACH, KATIE METTLER, E. AARON WIL­LIAMS AND LIND­SEY BEVER

thou­sand oaks, calif. — Cal­i­for­nia is on fire again, north and south, the flames deadly and swift, fanned by fe­ro­cious Santa Ana winds and fu­eled by dry tin­der. The fires have killed at least nine peo­ple, im­mo­lated a moun­tain town and jan­gled the nerves of many tens of thou­sands of res­i­dents forced to evac­u­ate their homes.

The fires have thus far proved to be un­stop­pable, op­er­at­ing at flash-flood ve­loc­ity. The big wild­fire here in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, known as the Woolsey Fire, qua-

dru­pled in size Fri­day, cov­er­ing more than 22 square miles, with no con­tain­ment. It eas­ily jumped eight-lane High­way 101 and ram­bled over the Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains to posh Mal­ibu, where it torched homes and cars. The wild­fire then fi­nally ran into its only match so far: the Pa­cific Ocean.

The bul­letins from the north­ern part of the state were even worse. At least nine peo­ple died in or near their homes or ve­hi­cles as they tried to out­race the Camp Fire, which dev­as­tated the moun­tain town of Par­adise, about 90 miles north of the state cap­i­tal, Sacra­mento.

Par­adise was any­thing but, with block af­ter block of destruc­tion, downed power lines, charred cars in the mid­dle of roads, util­ity poles still smol­der­ing and spot fires around the town, though there wasn’t much veg­e­ta­tion left to burn. Ran­dom build­ings still stand in the town of 27,000, but for ev­ery ed­i­fice that sur­vived, dozens that did not.

Marc Kessler, 55, a sci­ence teacher at one of Par­adise’s mid­dle schools, said the smoke was ris­ing from the Sierra Ne­vada foothills when he ar­rived at work Thurs­day.

“The sky turned black; you couldn’t tell it was day­time,” he said. “It was rain­ing black pieces of soot, com­ing down like a black snow­storm and start­ing fires ev­ery­where. Within min­utes, the town was en­gulfed.”

Kessler said au­thor­i­ties told teach­ers to for­get seat belt laws and start pil­ing the 200 or so stu­dents who showed up for class Thurs­day morn­ing into the teach­ers’ per­sonal ve­hi­cles. Some fran­tic par­ents showed up to get their chil­dren, he said, and bus drivers drove through flames to help save chil­dren’s lives.

Kessler said one of the stu­dents in his car said, “Oh, look at the moon!”

“I said, ‘ That’s not the moon. That’s the sun,’ ” he re­called, his voice break­ing. “There were times when there were flames near the ve­hi­cles. There were times when you couldn’t see through the smoke. Some of our teach­ers didn’t think they’d sur- vive.”

About 23.4 mil­lion Cal­i­for­ni­ans were un­der red-flag warn­ings into Fri­day, and of­fi­cials warned that flames could reach the city of Chico, a col­lege town of more than 90,000 about six miles from Par­adise. Peo­ple scram­bled to evac­u­ate.

The Camp Fire had cov­ered 110 square miles and was just 5 per­cent con­tained as of Fri­day, state of­fi­cials said, warn­ing that there might be ad­di­tional deaths that they can­not con­firm un­til they can safely en­ter smol­der­ing neigh­bor­hoods. It is a ter­ri­fy­ing sit­u­a­tion for fam­ily mem­bers of res­i­dents who were last heard from when the town and oth­ers nearby were or­dered evac­u­ated.

“We didn’t have much time; it came too fast,” said Cory Ni­chols, a bar­ber who fled his home in Par­adise. “We were go­ing to sell the house. Don’t have to now.”

Cal­i­for­nia has ex­pe­ri­enced de­bil­i­tat­ing fires of un­prece­dented reg­u­lar­ity in the past few years, many of them en­croach­ing on towns and ci­ties built up to the edges of forests in areas prone to wild­fires. In Au­gust, the Men­do­cino Com­plex Fire be­came the largest wild­fire ever recorded in the state, burn­ing more than 400,000 acres. The pre­vi­ous record was set less than a year be­fore, when the Thomas Fire burned through more than 280,000 acres in Ven­tura and Santa Bar­bara coun­ties. In Oc­to­ber 2017, some 21 wild­fires burned nearly 95,000 acres and 7,000 build­ings in Sonoma and Napa coun­ties in the heart of Cal­i­for­nia’s wine coun­try, killing 40 peo­ple.

The Cal­i­for­nia fire sea­son nor­mally be­gins in late spring and lasts through sum­mer. But hot, dry weather has per­sisted this year well into au­tumn, and the win­ter rains have yet to ar­rive. The Santa Ana winds, which blow out of the Sierra Ne­vadas and to­ward the west­ern coast­line, are build­ing into howl­ing gales that dry the veg­e­ta­tion and the soil,

cre­at­ing po­ten­tially ex­plo­sive fire con­di­tions.

In Thou­sand Oaks, 40 miles from down­town Los An­ge­les, res­i­dents have en­dured a bru­tal week.

This city, cher­ished by its res­i­dents for clean air and low crime, al­ready was in mourn­ing af­ter Wed­nes­day night’s mass shoot­ing at a coun­try mu­sic bar. At a vigil down­town Thurs­day night, peo­ple had lit can­dles and pon­dered an un­speak­able crime. Just hours later, the same area was choked in smoke and im­per­iled by the Woolsey Fire.

In the pre-dawn dark­ness, a gusty wind whipped Amer­i­can flags fly­ing at half-staff in honor of the shoot­ing vic­tims. An or­ange glow could be seen through­out the city, some­times leap­ing into bright flares along the ridge­lines. Emer­gency bul­letins buzzed cell­phones in the mid­dle of the night, some­times urg­ing evac­u­a­tions.

“It’s dan­ger­ous to sleep all night,” said Ser­gio Figueroa, 34, who was drop­ping his wife off at a ho­tel where she works on Fri­day. Late Thurs­day and into the early hours Fri­day, he watched tele­vi­sion, know­ing his home was in the “vol­un­tary” evac­u­a­tion zone. He said he al­lowed him­self one hour of shut-eye — but not ac­tual sleep.

“You just close your eyes and stay alert,” he said.

At 3 a.m., streets nor­mally empty at that hour were filled with par­ents, chil­dren and pets evac­u­at­ing as the or­ange glow crept closer.

“Don’t wait too long. Get out when they tell you to get out,” said Uber driver Brent Young, 52, who was about to take a client from Thou­sand Oaks to the Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port through a round­about route that would cir­cum­vent closed free­ways and dan­ger­ous con­di­tions.

The prob­lem was fig­ur­ing out which way to go. There were fires in many places. Even be­fore the Woolsey Fire kicked up, an­other wild­fire, the Hill Fire, threat­ened homes west of town. High­way 101 was closed in both direc­tions at var­i­ous times for two dif­fer­ent fires. The only thing in­hibit­ing the Hill Fire was that it ran into the foot­print of a 2013 fire and lacked fuel, of­fi­cials said.

Long­time res­i­dent Peggy Smith, 64, was fill­ing her gas tank at 4 a.m. Fri­day at a Mo­bil sta­tion in an area un­der vol­un­tary evac­u­a­tion. She said peo­ple be­gan flock­ing to Thou­sand Oaks in the 1960s af­ter air­line pi­lots on the flight path into Los An­ge­les no­ticed that there was no smog here. The pi­lots moved in, and then po­lice of­fi­cers, and fire­fight­ers.

She was ready for the fire. She needed only 10 min­utes to load her car with her fa­vorite fam­ily pho­tos, im­por­tant doc­u­ments, clothes and food.

“My son’s a fire­man. I was mar­ried to a fire­man. I’m not scared,” Smith said. “I have full faith in our fire de­part­ments.”

They were busy. The trucks rolled through neigh­bor­hoods and zoomed down High­way 101. Peo­ple had fled, power was out, and the only light came from the fires.

Wendy El­dredge, 54, drove to work as al­ways, to Noah’s Bagels, close to the free­way, aim­ing for a 5 a.m. ar­rival so doors could open at 6. When she topped a hill and looked down into Thou­sand Oaks, she was stunned.

“What am I driv­ing into?” she asked her­self. “How am I go­ing to get out?”

She drove in to work and opened up, the only em­ployee in just about the only place for miles open for busi­ness. “I didn’t want to let the peo­ple down,” she said.

Dawn ar­rived with a pall of smoke blot­ting out the sun.

The Woolsey Fire came from the north, not in a sin­gle wall of flame but in leaps and bounds.

“This is crazy,” said Paige Gor­don, a real es­tate agent who was check­ing on a friend’s mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar house in Westlake Vil­lage as flames de­voured the parched brush. “We have all as­pects of Ven­tura County on fire.”

As he turned on sprin­klers in his friend’s back­yard, an erup­tion of flame on the hill­side caught his at­ten­tion: “There’s the fire right there!”

Smoke loomed over Thou­sand Oaks like a thunderhead, the black cloud slowly ad­vanc­ing to­ward the sea as it crossed hills cov­ered in black­ened stub­ble.

In Mal­ibu, film and tele­vi­sion pro­ducer Ben Rosen­blatt, 35, took one look at the ap­proach­ing fire and knew he had to get out fast. He had just enough time to walk the dog first. There aren’t many ways in and out of Mal­ibu, with the roads that wind up through the canyons im­pass­able be­cause of fire. That left the Pa­cific Coast High­way, where traf­fic moved at a crawl. The drive to Santa Mon­ica should have taken him 35 min­utes, but the nav­i­ga­tion app on his phone said it would be 2 hours 35 min­utes.

“It’s like a slow-mo­tion race with mas­sive fire clouds be­hind you and bumper-to-bumper traf­fic in front,” Rosen­blatt said. “Think of any dis­as­ter movie you’ve seen where you’re try­ing to out­run the storm but it’s hap­pen­ing so slowly.”

Back in Thou­sand Oaks, the smoke would re­cede and then bil­low up again as a spot fire flared anew. At a teen cen­ter, set up as an evac­u­a­tion site for those flee­ing the fires, peo­ple be­came ner­vous when they saw flames on a nearby hill­side.

In the park­ing lot, peo­ple slept in their cars be­side their cats and dogs, their be­long­ings packed in the back.

Mary Leighton, 57, of West Lake, had just gone to bed Thurs­day night when her brother heard on the news that they needed to evac­u­ate.

“You think, ‘What do you take?’ ” She said. “My mind went blank.”

Five min­utes later, car­ry­ing her hus­band’s ashes and her cat, Pump­kin, she and her fam­ily were gone. They slept in a shel­ter overnight and woke Fri­day morn­ing to news that homes in their neigh­bor­hood had burned. Leighton didn’t know whether her home sur­vived.

She then re­called the mass shoot­ing at the Border­line: “I just don’t un­der­stand why this city has been hit so hard.”

She and her fam­ily didn’t get cots at the shel­ter un­til 4 a.m., she said. Leighton slept un­til 9 a.m. and woke to fig­ure out a plan for what comes next. She had been sit­ting in a white Volvo in the park­ing lot all morn­ing, still wear­ing her pa­ja­mas.

“I can’t find any in­for­ma­tion. I don’t know what’s go­ing on,” she said. “I have noth­ing; I know noth­ing.”

“Think of any dis­as­ter movie you’ve seen where you’re try­ing to out­run the storm but it’s hap­pen­ing so slowly.” Ben Rosen­blatt, Mal­ibu res­i­dent

RINGO H.W. CHIU/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Source: Fire In­for­ma­tion Re­source Man­age­ment Sys­tem A he­li­copter, at top, at­tacks spread­ing flames in Mal­ibu, Calif. About two-thirds of the city was or­dered emp­tied early in the day.

NOAH BERGER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS For video from wild­fire zones, go to wapo.st/wild­fires1110

Flames linger in a van in the wake of the Camp Fire, which tore through the town of Par­adise, Calif., on Thurs­day. Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple fled their homes in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, some car­ry­ing ba­bies and pets as they aban­doned ve­hi­cles and set out on foot to find safety.

PHO­TOS BY PHILIP CHE­UNG FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: A chim­ney and the shells of mo­tor ve­hi­cles are seen Fri­day where a home stood un­til it was de­stroyed by the Woolsey Fire in Thou­sand Oaks, Calif. ABOVE: A dis­placed res­i­dent rests in a tem­po­rary dor­mi­tory set up at the Alex Fiore Thou­sand Oaks Teen Cen­ter to ac­com­mo­date wild­fire refugees. Mul­ti­ple wild­fires burn­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously have dis­placed tens of thou­sands of Cal­i­for­ni­ans.

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