OJAI, Calif. — 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. Forecasters say strong Santa Ana winds, coupled with low humidity, will 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, or Cal Fire, 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 Tuesday had lessened greatly Wednesday. However, they were predicted to increase again Thursday.
“We are in the beginning of a protracted wind event,” said Cal 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.
A Bend Fire crew was sent Wednesday as part of an Oregon task force to assist the firefighters.
It is the second time in two months a Bend crew has been sent to California.
In October, Bend firefighters were among a group from Oregon sent to help crews battle the deadly fires that destroyed the northern part of the state.
Fire officials said 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 Wednesday 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.
“I’m looking to see what we can salvage,” Marcus, 58, said.
He spent the morning rummaging through the ashes with his two sons, Steven and Daniel. Together, they were able to scrounge a few ceramic plates and mugs.
Marcus said he and his mother evacuated Monday and had no more than 10 minutes to leave. He saw the flames — “an orange glow like the earth was angry” — and knew it was time to evacuate.
“It was enough time to grab the family and that was it. That was all I had,” he said.
Both his neighbors’ homes also burned, along with one house across from his and the homes along a nearby ridge. On Wednesday, smoke rose from the ground, which was still radiating heat.
“I feel loss but my family is safe, and, well, that’s all I care about. These are all possessions that can be replaced,” he said, walking through piles of burned wood and appliances.
Behind him, a blackened shower stood perfectly intact.
“This was a happy place where we celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas. Everything my mom has collected and cherished is gone,” he said.
As his sons looked through the property, Marcus searched for one particular artifact — a portion of the driveway where he and his father had carved their names in 1984.
“I was hoping to find some jewelry, but it all melted,” he said.
The home was renovated in 2008, he said. Marcus and his mother are staying at his nephew’s house nearby until his insurance company provides him with temporary housing.
“I kept hoping we’d come back and there would be a house,” he said. “Now we rebuild and start over. There’s not much you can do otherwise.”
His son Steven popped his head up where the fireplace once stood.
“Hey!” he shouted. “I found an angel!”
He waved a small “Precious Moments” figurine with a halo atop its head, then tossed it to his brother with a laugh.
At a briefing Wednesday morning, Rich Thompson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told crews that Santa Ana winds would pick up again Thursday.
Officials noted that “the wind has overwhelmed everything. … It’s driven the fire across all kinds of terrain.”
“You hear the winds are going to be slacking a little, but keep in mind by slacking we mean gusts of 80 go down to 35,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Tim Chavez. “If you notice the air gets still and quiet for a little while, stay there.”
Crews were warned of firefighter deaths that occurred in this area in the past during “a similar situation to today, a weakening Santa Ana.”
Ventura County Fire Capt. Steve Kaufmann said 50,000 residents had been evacuated from their homes and many don’t know the fate of their properties.