Crews battling a massive wildfire that has caused tens of thousands of Ventura County residents to flee are bracing themselves for a day of heavy winds Thursday, when forecasters predict fire-stoking gusts of up to 80 mph.
By Wednesday evening, the Thomas fire had scorched about 90,000 acres and carved a path of destruction that stretches more than 10 miles from Santa Paula to the Pacific Ocean.
As flames raged toward neighborhoods in Ojai, Carpenteria and Fillmore late Wednesday, officials issued new evacuation orders in Ojai Valley, notifying residents with an emergency cellphone alert. Authorities said they were helping residents of five assisted-living facilities evacuate, while people at Ojai Hospital were advised to shelter in place.
“It’s definitely moving,” Ventura County Sheriff’s Capt. Garo Kuredjian said of the fire. “Forecasters were correct in terms of the wind forecast for tonight — it’s much windier than it was yesterday.”
The fire is burning on the north and east side of Highway 150 and on the west side of Highway 33.
“It’s a weird wind pattern,” Kuredjian said.
Authorities had already expanded mandatory evacuation orders hours earlier in east Ojai after flames rolled down slopes about four miles north of downtown. Residents crowded street corners and gas stations downtown to watch the flames, wondering if they were going to be forced to leave.
“It looks pretty bad up there, but as of right now we have not lost any structures in the city of Ojai,” said Rudy Livingston, the city’s finance director. He said that officials have four 15-passenger vans and three vintage trolleys available to help evacuate residents.
About half an hour after that, residents in Carpinteria east of Bailard Avenue — along the west flank of the fire — were advised to evacuate in an emergency cellphone alert.
The Thomas fire was 5% contained, mostly along the southeast flank in the Santa Paula area. Forecasters say strong Santa Ana winds, coupled with low humidity, could offer “a recipe for explosive fire growth.”
“We stand a good chance of a challenging night and day tomorrow,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Tim Chavez said, adding that there’s potential for fire growth on the northwest side and a high probability of spot fires. “It’s going to be a difficult night and day.”
The focus Wednesday, officials said, was keeping the fire out of the Ojai Valley while assessing the devastation in the cities of Ventura and Santa Paula.
The hot Santa Ana winds that drove the fire at remarkable speed on Tuesday had lessened greatly Wednesday. However, they were predicted to increase again on Thursday.
“We are in the beginning of a protracted wind event,” said state fire chief Ken Pimlott.
“There will be no ability to fight fire in these kinds of winds,” Pimlott said. “At the end of the day, we need everyone in the public to listen and pay attention. This is not ‘watch the news and go about your day.’ This is pay attention minute-by-minute … keep your head on a swivel.”
Among those residents who took Pimlott’s words to heart were Kristy Cantrall, who left a garden hose poised on the roof of her Santa Paula townhome, just in case.
Only a day earlier, the Thomas fire was a half-mile away from her cul-de-sac neighborhood on Vela Court, prompting neighbors to climb up to their roofs and spray their homes with water.
Helicopters hovered overhead, dropping buckets of fire retardant on eucalyptus trees that had caught fire just north of the neighborhood.
Cantrall’s son Colin drove from Simi Valley to water down his mother’s home Tuesday night. “Once we saw copters come down, we knew we had to water,” he said.
He planned to do the same Wednesday if the fire flared up. Meanwhile, they just kept an eye on the news.
State fire officials say about 12,000 homes remain threatened by flames, while 50,000 people have been forced to flee. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, as approximately 1,100 personnel continued to battle the blaze. At least one firefighter has been injured.
Fire officials said that the area they’ve dubbed “branch one,” which includes Ojai, the bucolic mountain town known as a haven for spiritual seekers, health enthusiasts and celebrities, is one of their priorities. Firefighters are putting together a plan to protect Ojai and have expressed concern that winds could push the flames toward the city.
“The fire is here and wrapped around the community,” said Shane Lauderdale, a Cal Fire branch director, as he huddled with other officials in a downtown parking lot.
With a map of the Ojai Valley spread over the hood of a crew vehicle and ashes falling around him, Lauderdale said that more equipment and firefighters are being rushed to areas south and east of the town.
“We’re taking advantage of the current calm to concentrate resources along a defensive line,” he said.
Firefighters are moving heavy equipment to meet the blaze on the edge of town, while hand crews are cutting fire breaks.
“We’re going to get a lot more work done today,” Lauderdale said.
The fire threat is considered dire until Friday, when punishing Santa Ana winds are predicted to abate. However, Ojai city manager Steve McClary said, “Until we have fog drifting in from the west and light rain, we won’t feel like this thing is behind us.”
Officials said the southeast area of the Thomas fire was one of their highest priorities because of the “tremendous volume of fire” in that area.
They reiterated a message spread this morning — to put out even small bushes on fire along roads and extinguish the smallest embers on the way to bigger blazes because “that’s how it’s spreading from house to house.”
The fire was the worst of several major blazes across Southern California, including one in Bel-Air that closed the 405 Freeway on Wednesday, one in the Angeles National Forest near Sylmar and another in the Santa Clarita Valley.
At least 150 structures — including one large apartment complex and the Vista Del Mar Hospital, a psychiatric facility — were consumed by flames. But Cal Fire suspects the true number is hundreds more; firefighters just haven’t been able to get into some areas to know for sure.
Geoff Marcus walked past the charred remains of his Dodge Ram in the driveway of his Ventura home and surveyed the rubble that was left behind.
The raging Thomas fire chewed through the five-bedroom house he grew up in and his family has owned for 60 years.
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