Ventura fire is ‘out of control,’ forcing thousands to evacuate

Howling Santa Ana winds pushed a wildfire from rural hills into parts of the Southern California city of Ventura overnight with explosive speed, destroying dozens of buildings and forcing thousands of people to evacuate.

By Tuesday morning, the fire had burned about 45,000 acres in 13 hours, and some homes were ablaze in the northern part of Ventura — a city of more than 100,000 people along the Pacific coast.

The fast-moving fire forced sheriff’s deputies to knock on doors to warn residents to evacuate in the dark. About 150 buildings, including homes and an evacuated Ventura hospital, had been destroyed by Tuesday morning.

On Ventura’s northern edge, at least 10 homes and numerous palm trees were burning in one neighborhood, sending thick smoke and dangerous embers into the gusty air.

An evacuee, Catherine Wastweet, stood on a street Tuesday morning and looked up to the foothills where her neighborhood was aflame.

“We live up there … but we just don’t know whether our house is burned down or not, because we can’t even see through all of the smoke,” she said.

Latest developments

• The brush fire, called the Thomas Fire, was first reported at Steckel Park, just north of Santa Paula, around 6:30 p.m. local time, according to the Ventura County Fire Department. The cause wasn’t immediately known.

• By early Tuesday, the fire was burning at a rate of nearly an acre per second. At that speed, it would have covered Manhattan’s Central Park in about 15 minutes.

• About 27,000 people were under mandatory evacuation in Ventura County as fire officials warned the powerful winds could push flames further into the city of Ventura.

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

• A dead animal was found at the site of a rollover car crash near the evacuation zone Monday night, Ventura fire officials said. Initially, authorities reported that a person had died there, but they later clarified that no human body had been found.

• A fire battalion chief was injured in a traffic collision during the fires Monday night, and released from a hospital after being treated for “bumps and bruises,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said.

• “The fire is still out of control and structures continue to be threatened throughout the fire area,” the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said on a local emergency preparedness website. “Due to the intensity of the fire, crews are having trouble making access, but there are multiple reports of structures on fire.”

Santa Ana winds and dry conditions

Within a few hours, the fire jumped to thousands of acres as Santa Ana winds, blowing as fast as 40 to 60 mph, carried its embers. The fire engulfed dry chaparral and climbed through steep terrain.

Satellite images show fast the Thomas Fire lit up Ventura County at night.

The winds made up 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.

They could make the situation even worse Tuesday, with gusts of 50 to 60 mph possible. A lull is possible Wednesday, but winds could again pick up Wednesday night and Thursday.

Dry conditions won’t help. The county is in a period of moderate drought, the US Drought Monitor says. No considerable rain fell in November in the area, which hasn’t seen a month of above-average rainfall since February 2016.

‘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 Tuesday morning. 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.

Thousands without power

The fire also 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 a fiery orange as residents in Santa Paula threw a few of their belongings into cars to evacuate, according to video footage from CNN affiliates.

Firefighters couldn’t immediately use air tankers and helicopters to battle the wildfire because of darkness and strong winds, but officials intended to put them to use Tuesday morning, said Lorenzen, the Ventura County fire chief.

About 1,000 firefighters are battling the blaze or heading to the area to help Tuesday morning, said Macklin, a county fire engineer.

Macklin estimated that one stretch of flames extended 5 to 6 miles Tuesday morning.

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

Officials shut State Route 150, between Ojai and Santa Paula, due to the fires. All students at the Thomas Aquinas College, a private Catholic college in Santa Paula, were evacuated Monday night, the school said on Twitter. The college and the Santa Paula and Ventura school districts announced their closures Tuesday.

Two evacuation centers were opened for residents who had to leave their homes.

Hours into the disaster early Tuesday, California’s Office of Emergency Services secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fight the fire.

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