Thomas Fire: 150 structures destroyed, 45,000 acres burned as flames raced from Santa Paula to Ventura
Strong Santa Ana winds drove a fast-moving fire Monday night as flames tore through 45,000 acres and destroyed 150 structures in a matter of hours.
As the blaze spread from the hillsides above Santa Paula, down toward the small city and west to Ventura, thousands were forced to flee their homes, multiples structures were destroyed and reports continued to come in about others on fire.
“I personally have never seen structures destroyed in Ventura County like this. We’re doing everything we can to keep in front of this thing,” said Rich Macklin, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.
The wind, gusting 60 mph and higher earlier in the night, had started to pick up again, he said.
Earlier, authorities said one person was killed while attempting to flee when a car overturned on Foothill Road. A firefighter also was injured, Macklin said. He was taken to a hospital and was reported in stable condition.
“The fire spread quickly, pushed by heavy east winds toward the west,” said Chief Mark Lorenzen of Ventura County Fire Department. ”We’re basically leapfrogging our engines doing structure defense as the fire proceeds.”
First reported about 6:20 p.m. near Steckel Park, the fire grew from 50 to 100 acres in minutes. Flames quickly jumped Highway 150, which cuts a path from Ojai to Santa Paula, a city of about 35,000 on the eastern end of the Ventura County.
By 2:30 a.m., the fire had spread to 26,000 acres.
“The prospects for containment are not good, really Mother Nature is going to decide when we have the ability to put it out because it is pushing hard,” Lorenzen said at an 11 p.m. news briefing.
‘fast, very dangerous moving fire’
The power went out in Santa Paula, Ventura and other cities throughout the county just before 10 p.m., as more neighborhoods were ordered to evacuate.
Scores of police officers, Sheriff’s deputies and search and rescue personnel knocked on doors and woke people up to tell them to get to safety.
“It’s difficult to follow. It’s a fast-moving fire,” Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean said late Monday.
“You must abide by these evacuation notices. You saw the disaster and the losses up north in Sonoma and this is a fast, very dangerous moving fire.”
Flames reached Ventura before midnight Monday.
The city issued mandatory evacuations as the fire spread to areas including the Ondolundo and Clearpoint communities, along Ventura Avenue and above Poli Street.
Neighborhoods continued to be added to the list, city officials said at just past midnight.
“The fire has spread incredibly fast. This is a very bad scenario,” said Ventura Fire Marshal Joe Morelli, speaking from the city’s Emergency Operations Center at Ventura Police headquarters. “The winds are still picking up.”
Tens of thousands of city residents are without power, Morelli said. Police headquarters were running on a generator.
Morelli said he nor Fire Chief David Endaya, who has been with the department for more than 20 years, had ever experienced anything comparable to this fire.
“This is probably one of the most significant events in our city ever,” Morelli said.
The Thomas Fire burns across several hillsides along Highway 150 near Santa Paula late Monday, threatening several neighborhoods. ANTHONY PLASCENCIA/THE STAR
Southern California Edison spokeswoman Susan Cox said it was unclear just how many homes were without power and officials had no estimate for when power would be restored.
“It’s really difficult because there’s a main power line source that runs along this ridge and that’s what the fire’s burning down,” Dean said Monday.
‘The smoke was orange’
At the Ventura County Fairgrounds, one of two shelters set up by the Red Cross, two families and about seven people sat in the dark near the cots by 10 p.m.
Roman Barita, a farmworker who lives in a trailer park on Wheeler Canyon Road, knew it was time to evacuate when he climbed the hill near his home and saw brilliant red flames.
“I’ve never seen that before,” said Barita in Spanish, as his 17-year-old son translated.
Barita came to the shelter with his wife and son then contacted the others in his family.
He hoped his neighbors evacuated, too. “Because there’s little kids and families,” he said.
A power outage meant the shelter was illuminated with flashlights. Red Cross volunteers set up cots and blankets offering their visitors water and snacks.
“If we had power we’d offer coffee,” said Nancy Jenkins, shelter manager, noting the hall could accommodate about 100 people.
More people filtered in. Steve McKinney rents a home in Wheeler Canyon. He came out of his house at 8:15 p.m. and knew he needed to make a decision.
“The sky was just orange. The smoke was orange,” he said, adding he could see a ridge engulfed in flames 20 feet tall.
He evacuated part of a throng of people who were leaving, driving by the fire trucks coming to battle the flames.
McKinney went to Ventura Missionary Church to pray and then came to the shelter though he planned to stay the night with family and friends.
“I thought I better come down here to see if they needed help,” he said.
By 11 p.m., dozens of more people were heading into the shelter to wait out the blaze that had nearly reached Ventura.
Because of the strong winds and low visibility, few aircraft were flying Monday night, but that was expected to change at dawn.
Officials said they had asked for eight air tankers and a dozen helicopters to help fight the blaze.
The plan tomorrow is to “work edges of the fire to keep it out of the neighborhoods,” Lorenzen said.
With winds like this, it makes it harder for firefighters, he said. But a lot of what they can do is what they’re doing: Getting ahead of it and doing evacuations.
Ventura, Oxnard elementary, Hueneme and Santa Paula school districts said campuses would be closed Tuesday.
Along with the shelter at the fairgrounds in Ventura, the Red Cross opened up Nordhoff High School in Ojai for residents affected by the fire.
The Humane Society of Ventura County, also in Ojai, was accepting large and small animals. Earlier Monday, some people took horses to the livestock area at the fairgrounds trying to escape the smoke and fire in Santa Paula.
Ash Spann stood outside one of the livestock barns cooing to her horse Kody. Spann lives in Ventura and boards three horses at Willow Creek Ranch outside of Santa Paula.
As she drove back toward Ventura with her horses, she said she was happy to see clear air again.
“We were two canyons from the fire and the smoke from the cinders was blowing down,” she said. “We’re going back to see if we can get more.”