Home / World News / More than 150 structures destroyed, 27,000 people evacuated in raging Ventura wildfire

More than 150 structures destroyed, 27,000 people evacuated in raging Ventura wildfire

A fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept into the city of Ventura early Tuesday, burning 31,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing 27,000 people to evacuate.

At least 150 structures — including at least one large apartment complex — were consumed by flames, and many more were threatened as the fire crept about a quarter-mile away from City Hall.

But the destruction appears to be much worse as the sun rose Tuesday, revealing fire sweeping through whole neighborhoods in the hills above Ventura.

The fire hopscotched through hillside neighborhoods, burning some homes and sparing others. Some residents sensed the the worst might be over in the early hours of the morning when winds died down. But they picked up with a fury around daybreak, causing more destruction.

Engulfed in flames, the Hawaiian Village Apartments collapsed about 4 a.m.

Water gushed down North Laurel Street as firefighters worked to put out the flaming complex and residents watched, holding cameras and cellphones. The sound of bursting propane tanks filled the air.

Hundreds of firefighters working through the night tried to prevent the blaze from spreading, block by block, as they were confronted by wind gusts of up to 50 mph.

One firefighter was hit by a car while he was protecting homes. He is at the hospital being evaluated, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Scott Quirarte.

Fire officials said the intensity of the fire, coupled with the high winds, made it pretty much unstoppable.

“The prospects for containment are not good,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said at a news conference. “Really, Mother Nature is going to decide.”

The Thomas fire had burned 31,000 acres, but fire officials expected it would rip through at least 50,000 acres in the mountains between Santa Paula and Ventura. By 5:20 a.m. Tuesday, winds were pushing flames toward Ojai Valley, authorities said.

“The fire is actively burning in the city of Ventura and there are homes and buildings actively burning at this time,” Ventura County Sheriff Sgt. Eric Buschow said.

The destruction comes in what was already the worst year on record for wildfires in California. In October, more than 40 people died and more than 10,000 structures were lost when fires swept through Northern California’s wine country.

The Vista Del Mar hospital, a psychiatric facility, was evacuated, authorities said. The area around a Ventura landmark called Two Trees has also burned.

“That was our first sign,” McCleery, 65, said. “And then you could just see it racing across the ridge.”

Not far from McCleery’s home, Eddie Barragan, 43, and his wife Maria, 39, sat in folding camp chairs at the corner of North Wells Road and Loma Vista Road.

The couple had been watching the fire for four hours as family members waited inside their home. Barragan, an iron worker who has worked as a wildland firefighter, said he was studying the flames and paying attention to how the wind shifted.

“If it comes over this next ridge, or the wind shifts, it takes one ember to get on one of these houses, and there it goes,” he said.

The blaze started about 6:25 p.m. Monday in the foothills near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, a popular hiking destination, and grew wildly to more than 15 square miles in the hours that followed — consuming vegetation that hasn’t burned in decades, Ventura County Fire Sgt. Eric Buschow said.

Shortly after 10 p.m. Monday, Richard Macklin, a Ventura County fire engineer, was on the phone with a news outlet when his fire station in Santa Paula — the command center for the incident — went dark.

“We have power now,” Macklin said about 10:20 p.m. “I got lights, I don’t know how they’re providing it.”

Authorities were evacuating homes east of Dickenson Road, north of Monte Vista Drive along Highway 150 and south of the college in Santa Paula and homes north of Foothill Road in Ventura. The fire was burning on both sides of the highway.

“We’re really just trying to catch it around the edges and just pinch it off as quickly as we possibly can,” said Ventura County Firefighter Jason Hodge, adding that crews are dealing with 25 to 50 mph winds. “That’s what’s driving this fire. So it’s a challenge, but everybody’s out there working hard and will be through the night.”

Santa Paula resident Fabian Mauricio, 31, was playing basketball in Los Angeles when friends began texting him about a fire in his neighborhood. He said he called his parents, who tried to downplay the blaze to keep him from worrying. But when he checked photos and videos online, he saw a raging inferno, he said.

As his parents packed important documents, clothing and their two dogs, they told him to stay put.

“I’m worried, but there’s nothing I can really do,” said Mauricio, who trained in a fire academy. “It is kind of helpless not being able to be there, help or do anything about it.”

Since shortly before 7 p.m. Monday, firefighters were in place to protect homes along Highway 150 just north of Santa Paula, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Stan Ziegler. Within an hour, the fire grew from 50 to 500 acres.

Evacuation centers were opened at Nordhoff High School at 1401 Maricopa Highway in Ojai and at the Ventura County Fairgrounds at 10 W. Harbor Blvd. in Ventura.

As the blaze grew rapidly, four helicopters were to begin making water drops after crews determined that it was safe to fly. But about 9:30 p.m., two helicopters were forced to land at Santa Paula Airport due to the high winds. “Waiting for winds to slow down so we can get back in the fight,” officials said on Twitter.

“It’s always difficult and somewhat dangerous to fly at night, so depending on different conditions and the geographic challenges is how they evaluate whether or not they can operate at night,” Hodge said.

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