Wind-driven firestorm continues spreading unabated in Ventura County

VENTURA, Calif. -- An erratic fire in Ventura County that has burned in several cities has grown to 90,000 acres and was 5 just percent contained as it headed north toward Santa Barbara County, prompting additional evacuations Wednesday evening.

The Ventura County Fire Department has ordered evacuations for the following communities, according to a Twitter post at 9:26 p.m.

Additionally, a voluntary evacuation order was issued in Santa Barbara County, in Carpinteria east of Bailard Avenue.

Fire officials were expecting extreme wind starting 10 p.m., something that is especially worrisome given that the flames were already burning “actively with extreme rates of spread,” according to the latest incident update from Cal Fire. Winds were also pushing embers, fueling long-range spotting.

A red flag warning will be in effect for the Ventura County area until 8 p.m. Saturday, according to National Weather Service spokesperson Rich Thompson. He said very dry conditions — 4 to 8 percent humidity — and strengthening Santa Ana Winds with gusts 30 to 50 mph were expected in the county Wednesday evening and Thursday, calling weather conditions a “recipe for explosive fire growth.”

There’s high potential of large fire growth on the north and west side of the Thomas Fire in the next 24 to 48 hours, fire behavior analyst Tim Chavez said.

Heavy smoke covers the seaside enclave of Mondos Beach beside the 101 highway as flames reach the coast during the Thomas Fire near Ventura, on Dec. 6, 2017. (Credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Heavy smoke covers the seaside enclave of Mondos Beach beside the 101 highway as flames reach the coast during the Thomas Fire near Ventura, on Dec. 6, 2017.
(Credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

The Thomas Fire began Monday evening north of Santa Paula, according to Cal Fire. It’s burning on Highway 150 and Highway 33.

The flames wreaked havoc as the fire swept through areas of Ventura, Santa Paula, leaving a path of a devastation and destruction before moving toward the coast near Solimar Beach Tuesday night.

By Wednesday night, the fire was moving northward toward the Santa Barbara County line near Lake Casitas; it has also started to travel in the direction of the Los Padres National Forest and Sespe Wilderness area.

Nearly 2,500 fire personnel were aggressively trying to contain the fire by air and on the ground while they worked to protect life and property in the region. About 475 engines have been assigned to the fire, along with seven water tenders, 12 helicopters, 29 hand crews and 26 dozers.

More than 50,000 people from about 15,000 homes were evacuated within 24 hours, Ventura City Fire Chief David Endaya said.

As of 3:33 p.m. Wednesday, Cal Fire has reported 150 structures destroyed and 12,000 structures threatened.

Ventura County Fire Capt. Steve Kaufmann said crews were still assessing damage as of Wednesday evening.

The “out of control” fire was being pushed by gusty east winds, the Ventura County Fire Department reported.

The Ventura County Fire Department explained Wednesday afternoon that winds in the area have changed directions, pushing smoke into Ventura, Oxnard and Camarillo. Air quality and visibility were low.

Aerial video showed a plume of smoke over a large area of Ventura County.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the county, and county, Ventura and Santa Paula officials have proclaimed a local emergency.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved grants to help cover costs of the Thomas Fire, as well as other blazes burning in Southern California, officials tweeted Wednesday.

Tom and Linda Craft returned to a Ventura neighborhood where her sister lives and discovered charred remains.

Linda Craft said her sister repurchased a home in the neighborhood about six years ago and all of their photos, family archives and special collections are gone.

“We just spent Thanksgiving here,” Linda said outside the home, now a pile of rubble. “It’s been a wonderful family home.”

“It’s absolutely devastating,” Tom Craft said.

Mandatory evacuations remain in place in the following locations:

-Santa Paula: Boundary of Say Road north to Thomas Aquinas, Dickenson Ranch Road east to Santa Paula Creek; Boundary of Monte Vista Street north to city limits; Foothill Road from Steckel to Peck Road to north of city limits

Carolyn Potter tries to save her house by putting dirt on a fire on Nye Road in Casitas Springs on Dec. 5, 2017. (Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Carolyn Potter tries to save her house by putting dirt on a fire on Nye Road in Casitas Springs on Dec. 5, 2017. (Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

-Unincorporated Santa Paula: North of Foothill Road from Peck Road to Wells Road including: Wheeler Canyon, Aliso Canyon and Rancho Vista; Teloma east to Brent Street; Telegraph Road north to north of Foothill Road; Victoria Road east to Hill Road; Telegraph Road north to Foothill Road; North Ashwood Avenue east to Hill Road, Telegraph Road north to Foothill Road; North of Foothill Road from Wells Road to Poli Street; North of Main Street from Seward Avenue to Hwy 33 (including the entire Ventura Avenue area.

-Oak View: Boundary of Hwy 33, Creek Road and Hermosa Road

-The entire Community of Casitas Springs.

-East Ojai Valley: Carne Road east to McAndrew Road, Reeves Road north to Thacher Road

-Upper Ojai Valley – Hwy 150 from Dennison Grade east to Osborne Road and all residences north

-Ventura County North Coast Area: Boundary of Highway 33 on the north to Casitas Vista Road, northwest to Highway Highway 150, Highway 150 west to the 101 Freeway and south on the 101 to Emma State Beach.

Voluntary evacuations remain in place in areas of Ventura and Fillmore.

A voluntary evacuation is in effect for a portion of Carpinteria as well for all areas from the 5500 block of Casitas Pass Rd. (Highway 192 east to the Santa Barbara County line, include Lillingston Canyon and Cate Mesa, and all addresses north to the county line;  east side of Bailard Avenue from the 101 Freeway; and all areas south of the 101 to the coast and east of Dump Road, including all of the Bates Road and Rincon areas.

Evacuation centers:

-Ventura: Ventura County Fairgrounds at Miners Building, 10 W Harbor Blvd. This includes an animal shelter for all types of animals.

-Ojai: Nordhoff High School, 1401 Maricopa Hwy.

-Oxnard: Oxnard College Gymnasium, 4000 South Rose Ave.

-Santa Paula: Santa Paula Community Center, 530 West Main St.

-Fillmore: Veteran’s Memorial Building, 511 2nd Street.

-U.C. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Multi Activity Center, 552 University Road.

Road Closures:

-Eastbound Highway 150 from Reeves Road in Ojai to Stonegate Road in Santa Paula

-Highway 150 from Santa Ana Road to Casitas Pass Road

-Nye Road loop east of Highway 33

-Foothill Road at Olive/Cummings/Briggs/Peck/Wells/Highpoint/LaFonda/Skyline/Colina Vista

 

School closures:

-ACE Charter High School

-Briggs School District

-Conejo Valley Unified School District

-CSU Channel Islands

-Fillmore Unified School District

-Hueneme Elementary School District

-Mesa Union Elementary School District

-Moorpark Unified School District

-Mupu Elementary School District

-Ocean View School District

-Ojai Unified School District

-Oxnard Elementary School District

-Oxnard Union High School District

-Pleasant Valley School District

-Rio Elementary School District

-Saint Anthony’s School

-Santa Clara Elementary School District (Santa Paula)

-Santa Paula Unified School District

-Simi Valley Unified School District

-University Preparation Charter School

-VCOE Career Education Center Sites

-VCOE-Operated School Sites and Classrooms

-Ventura Charter School

-Ventura Unified School District

-Moorpark College

-Oxnard College

-Ventura College

-Thomas Aquinas College

On Ventura's northern edge, at least 10 homes and many trees were burning in one neighborhood, sending thick smoke and dangerous embers into the gusty air. Autorities said Tuesday morning that the fire had consumed at least 150 structures, but they have not updated that number since then.

Latest developments

• Mass exodus: About 38,000 people were under mandatory evacuation in Ventura County as fire officials warned the powerful winds could push flames farther into the city of Ventura. One official said, "It's important that you heed the advice to evacuate, please."

 Gutted by flames: Vista del Mar Hospital, an 82-bed mental health facility in northwestern Ventura, was fully evacuated two hours before it burned, county fire engineer Richard Macklin said.

• State response: Gov. Jerry Brown declared an emergency for Ventura County, freeing state resources such as the National Guard to support response efforts.

Santa Ana winds and dry conditions

The Thomas fire started north of Santa Paula on Monday evening and jumped to thousands of acres with startling speed as Santa Ana winds, blowing as fast as 50 mph, carried its embers. It engulfed dry chaparral and climbed through steep terrain.

Satellite images show how fast it lit up neighborhoods at night.

The winds were part of the season's "strongest and longest" Santa Ana event. The Santa Anas are strong, dry winds that high-pressure systems push from east to west, from the mountains and desert areas down into the Los Angeles area.

Wind gusts reached between 35 to 50 mph on Tuesday, with relative humidity at 3 to 10%, NWS incident meterologist Rich Thompson said. The winds were expected to decrease Tuesday night, but are expected to kick back up late Wednesday into Thursday. A red-flag warning is in effect until 8 p.m. PT on Friday.

"We expect to be out here all week fighting and containing this fire," Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor, said of the Creek fire.

Dry conditions won't help. The county is in a period of moderate drought, the US Drought Monitor says.

'I saw a skyscraper inferno of smoke'

Erik Nasarenko, a Ventura city councilman and former mayor, said he was at a council meeting Monday evening when the city manager told him his neighborhood was being evacuated.

"I left the meeting, raced home, and I saw a skyscraper inferno of smoke," Nasarenko said. After collecting important documents from his home, he was about to pick up family photo albums when approaching flames made him reconsider.

"I saw the orange glow, and I just said, 'Let's go.' " Nasarenko said he, his wife and two children drove to his parents' home near San Fernando.

He doesn't yet know the fate of his house, but he said neighbors told him they saw nearby structures on fire.

A knock on the door

Orange flames glow threateningly close to a Ventura neighborhood in video recorded by Eric Rosenberg. He and his wife were alerted to the fire around 12:30 a.m. when a neighbor knocked on his door.

"(The) power was out and (my) phone's internet was out," he said. "I texted a friend a mile or so away who gave me more info."

"We had packed the car at about 1 a.m. and left right away when the police said it was time to go" three hours later, he said.

Rosenberg and his wife are currently at his parents'-in-law home in Carpinteria, about 25 minutes from their home. "We can see the billowing smoke clouds in the distance," Rosenberg said.

Thousands without power

The fire burned down power lines, at one point leaving more than 260,000 homes and businesses without power in Ventura County and neighboring Santa Barbara County, said Susan Cox, a spokeswoman for Southern California Edison.

By early Tuesday, power had been restored to all but 20,000 customers -- but more outages were possible because flames were burning along power transmission paths, Cox said.

As the fire spread, the nearby hills glowed bright orange while residents in Santa Paula threw belongings into cars as they began to evacuate, according to video footage from CNN affiliates.

About 1,000 firefighters were battling the blaze or heading to the area to help, said county fire engineer Macklin.

"I've never seen a fire burn down so many structures so fast in my (30-year) career," Macklin said.

One airborne firefighter tweeted dramatic video of the Creek Fire, showing choking smoke and at least one tall tree engulfed in flames.

"Unbelievable conditions," Michael Dubron wrote.

In some areas, the winds made it impossible for firefighters to use airplanes to attack the fire, officials said.