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.
Ventura County fire officials reported Monday night that one person was killed in a traffic accident on a road closed due to the Thomas fire. But at about 6 a.m. Tuesday, authorities said no fatalities were confirmed — although one dog had died, Quirarte said.
At least 1,000 homes in Ventura, Santa Paula and Ojai were evacuated.
More than 260,000 customers in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties were without power. As of 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, a Southern California Edison spokeswoman did not know when power would be restored.
About 2 a.m., Karen Kwan-Holt stood near Ventura High School and watched her neighbor’s house burn. For 17 years, she’s lived in a hillside home her husband built, with him and their two children.
Hours earlier, the family packed up their precious items, including photographs and their guinea pigs, Guinea Penny and Gert.
“It’s a house that was built with love,” she said, watching the tree between her neighbor’s home and her home catch fire. “We’re just hoping for the best.”
Meanwhile, Tom Weaver, 73, had just finished packing some suit coats in the back of a van. He and his family were evacuating their home near Main Street in Ventura.
Nearby, homes burned on a hillside. Weaver said he wasn’t sure where they would go once they evacuated.
“Don’t know,” he said. “We’re designating a parking lot to meet at. From there, I think it’s breakfast and chitchat [until] we can go home.”
In Santa Paula around the same time, residents were already awake and alert when a police cruiser inched through their neighborhood, announcing mandatory evacuations. At least one woman in a white robe stopped the cruiser and asked how close the fire was to the neighborhood.
“It’s coming across this way,” the officer said.
Nearby, Mike Medina stood by Say and Roger roads, watching the flames slowly making their way down the canyon through a gap of tree branches and snapping a photo.
Earlier in the day, when the fire broke out, Medina said he was returning home from work at Costco in Oxnard when his 73-year-old mother called him.
“She told me, ‘I could see flames in the back of our yard,’” he said. He said he knew his father, an amputee, would need help getting out.
Medina drove straight to his parents’ home. When he got there, he saw flames in the distance. The winds, strong enough to shove a person, picked up dust. He stayed with his parents until authorities ordered them to leave.
Medina said a wildfire had burned down his parents’ home on the early 1980s. They rebuilt it, and now he wondered if it was still standing.
“To see it almost burn, they must be losing their minds,” he said.
Strong winds were pushing the blaze southwest toward Ventura and Highway 33, officials said. About 500 firefighters were battling the blaze, or on their way there. Fixed-wing aircraft and water-dropping helicopters were expected to attack the fire at daybreak. Numerous spot fires erupted as a result of the difficult conditions.
After midnight, residents just outside the evacuation zone wondered whether they should pack up and leave. Taylor Penny, 24, and her neighbor Eric Chen, 31, stood in the road of their neighborhood just south of Foothill Road.
For the past hour, they’d watched the flames ebb and flow along the nearby hills. Chen said the flames seemed to be lessening, but Penny remained worried as they stood in the wind and cold.
The power in the neighborhood was out, and Penny said they had limited access to information about the size and locations of the fire because their cellphones had poor reception.
“I just hope we’re all right,” she said. “That’s it.”
About 12:45 a.m., Karen McCleery stood in her driveway near plastic candy canes and other Christmas decorations, watching the fire burn a nearby hillside.
Like many of her neighbors in Foothill Heights, just south of Foothill Road in Ventura, McCleery took comfort that the fire had one more hill it would have to burn before reaching their neighborhood. Nevertheless, many wondered when it would be time to leave.
She said she lost power about 6 p.m. Monday.
“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.
Ventura County Fire staffed an extra 100 or so firefighters in anticipation of strong winds that triggered a red-flag warning in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Weather officials said those regions could see gusts of 50 to 70 mph Monday night into Tuesday.
“This is exactly what we have prepared for,” Ziegler said. “This is not a surprise by any means.”
Cosgrove and Vives reported from Ventura, Tchekmedyian from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
6:20 a.m.: This article was updated with information about a reported animal fatality, a hospital evacuation.
4:15 a.m.: This article was updated with interviews with Ventura residents.
3:55 a.m.: This article was updated with new numbers on acreage burned, structures destroyed and people evacuated.
3:40 a.m.: This article was updated with a new evacuation number and an interview with the son of evacuees.
3:10 a.m.: This article was updated with new acreage-burned numbers and a report of an injury to a firefighter.
2:10 a.m.: This article was updated with updated acreage-burned figures and reports of homes on fire.
1:50 a.m.: This article was updated with interviews with Ventura residents.
1 a.m.: This article was updated with information from Southern California Edison and an interview with a resident outside the evacuation zone.
Dec. 5, 12:05 a.m.: This article was updated with information about power outages and an interview with a Santa Paula resident.
11:10 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect two structures have been destroyed.
10:35 p.m.: This article was updated with information about power outages.
10:25 p.m.: This article was updated with a larger acreage-burned number and new evacuations.
10:10 p.m.: This article was updated with more information about the emergency response to the fire.
9:40 p.m.: This article was updated with a larger acreage-burned number.
9:10 p.m.: This article was updated with more information from fire officials.
8:55 p.m.: This article was updated with a new acreage-burned number.
8:15 p.m.: This article was updated with information about evacuations.
7:55 p.m.: This article was updated with a new acreage-burned number.
This article was originally published on Dec. 4 at 7:10 p.m.