A fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept into the city of Ventura early Tuesday, burning 25,000 acres, destroying multiple homes and forcing thousands to evacuate.
“The fire is still out of control and structures are threatened throughout the fire area,” authorities said in an alert just before 2 a.m. “Due to the intensity of the fire, crews are having trouble making access, but there are multiple reports of structures on fire.”
The extent of the losses were unclear, but fire officials said there was little they could do stop the flames being pushed by wind gusts of up to 50 mph.
“The prospects for containment are not good,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen at a news conference. “Really mother nature is going to decide.”
The Thomas fire had burned at least 10,000 acres. But fire officials expected it would rip through at least 50,000 acres in the mountains between Santa Paula and Ventura.
The destruction comes in what was already the worst year on record for wildfires in California. In October, more than 40 people died and more than 10,000 structures were lost when fires swept through Northern California’s wine country.
One person was reported killed in a traffic accident on a road closed due to the Thomas fire. At least 1,000 homes in Ventura, Santa Paula and Ojai were evacuated.
More than 260,000 customers in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties were without power. As of 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, a Southern California Edison spokeswoman did not know when power would be restored.
After midnight, residents just outside the evacuation zone wondered whether they should pack up and leave. Taylor Penny, 24, and her neighbor Eric Chen, 31, stood in the road of their neighborhood just south of Foothill Road.
For the past hour, they’d watched the flames ebb and flow along the nearby hills. Chen said the flames seemed to be lessening, but Penny remained worried as they stood in the wind and cold.
The power in the neighborhood was out, and Penny said they had limited access to information about where the fire was because their cellphones had poor reception.
“I just hope we’re all right,” she said. “That’s it.”
About 12:45 a.m., Karen McCleery stood in her driveway near plastic candy canes and other Christmas decor, watching the fire burn a nearby hillside.
Like many of her neighbors, McCleery took refuge in that fact that the fire had one more hill that it would have to burn before reaching the neighborhood.
She said she lost power about 6 p.m. Monday.
“That was our first sign,” McCleeey, 65, said. “And then you could just see it racing across” the ridge.”
In McCleery’s neighborhood, Foothill Heights, just south of Foothill Road in Ventura, many neighbors stood in driveways, watching the fire burn, wondering when it would be time to leave.
Not far from McCleery’s home, Eddie Barragan, 43, and his wife Maria, 39, sat in folding camp chairs at the corner of North Wells Road and Loma Vista Road.
The couple had been watching the fire for the past four hours as family waited inside their home. Barragan, a union iron worker who has worked as a wildlife firefighter, said he was studying the flames and paying attention to how the wind shifted.
“If it comes over this next ridge, or the wind shifts, it takes one ember to get on one of these houses, and there it goes,” he said.
The blaze started in the foothills near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, a popular hiking destination, and 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.
Shortly after 10 p.m. Monday, Richard Macklin, a Ventura County fire engineer, was on the phone with a news outlet when his fire station in Santa Paula — the command center for the incident — went dark.
“We have power now,” Macklin said about 10:20 p.m. “I got lights, I don’t know how they’re providing it.”
Authorities were evacuating homes east of Dickenson Road, north of Monte Vista Drive along Highway 150 and south of the college in Santa Paula and homes north of Foothill Road in Ventura. The fire was burning on both sides of the highway.
“We’re really just trying to catch it around the edges and just pinch it off as quickly as we possibly can,” said Ventura County Firefighter Jason Hodge, adding that crews are dealing with 25 to 50 mph winds. “That’s what’s driving this fire. So it’s a challenge, but everybody’s out there working hard and will be through the night.”
Santa Paula resident Fabian Mauricio, 31, was playing basketball in Los Angeles when friends began texting him about a fire in his neighborhood. He called his parents, who tried to downplay the blaze to keep him from worrying. But when he checked photos and videos online, he saw a raging inferno.
As his parents packed important documents, clothing and their two dogs, they told him to stay put.
“I’m worried, but there’s nothing I can really do,” said Mauricio, who trained in a fire academy. “It is kind of helpless not being able to be there, help or do anything about it.”
Since shortly before 7 p.m., firefighters were in place to protect homes along Highway 150 just north of Santa Paula, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Stan Ziegler. Within an hour, the fire grew from 50 to 500 acres.
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.
Four helicopters were to begin making water drops after crews determined that it was safe to fly as the blaze grew rapidly. But about 9:30 p.m., two helicopters were forced to land at Santa Paula Airport due to 50-mph winds. “Waiting for winds to slow down so we can get back in the fight,” officials said on Twitter.
“It’s always difficult and somewhat dangerous to fly at night, so depending on different conditions and the geographic challenges is how they evaluate whether or not they can operate at night,” Hodge said.
Copter 6 & 7 were forced to land at Santa Paula Airport due to 50 +MPH winds. Waiting for winds to slow down so we can get back in the fight. @VCSOVentura @VCSORomanoBassi @VCFD pic.twitter.com/yhGa5m42sp
— VenturaCoAirUnit (@VCAirUnit) December 5, 2017