As Ventura County's long day of fire and smoke began, 600 firefighters battling a single blaze north of Hidden Valley had reason to hope they would gain control in the hours to come.
But by 2:30 a.m., two more fires had erupted near Simi Valley and Santa Paula. A fourth started by midmorning near Ojai. And in the harrowing hours that followed, firestorms threatened the length of the county, charring more than 25,000 acres by nightfall and forcing evacuations of hundreds of residents.
Throughout the day, scenes from the fire lines chronicled the despair and hope of firefighters and residents alike as they coped with threats from all sides.
'It's Going All the Way'
The nature of the first fire, the Hidden Valley blaze, changed suddenly about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, as fierce Santa Ana winds began to gust up to 50 m.p.h. and push it toward Point Mugu.
A 50-foot wall of flame marched southwest in the hills between Lynn and Potrero roads just east of Newbury Park, coming within about 25 feet of newer, tile-roofed homes.
At the same time, word spread throughout the command post that two more fires had erupted in Ventura County. The quiet confidence of the early evening turned grim.
"No one's going home anytime soon," county fire spokesman Alan Campbell said as Plan 4, a call for every county firefighter to report immediately, was ordered.
Assistant Chief Dave Festerling immediately, but grudgingly, dispatched strike teams from his fire to each of the new fires--one in the Box Canyon area south of Simi Valley, the other near Santa Paula.
Meanwhile, the Hidden Valley fire, suddenly fanned by sharp gusts, crossed Potrero Road.
"It's going all the way to the ocean," Campbell said.
What to Take Along
In nearby Newbury Park, Dean Lappinga and his wife had gone to sleep Tuesday night after news reports reassured them that the fire was still hovering miles to the east.
But at 2:45 a.m., sheriff's deputies banged on the Lappingas' front door, warning them to be ready to evacuate.
"I heard them pounding and I looked out the window," the 31-year-old Lappinga said, "and all I could see was the mountain all red behind me." His 4-year-old daughter, Tiffany, looked out the window and began to cry.
The Lappingas gathered their two children, pet rat and two dogs and got ready to flee.
"You get that fear that runs through you when you think, 'My house is going to go. What am I going to take?,' " he said. They loaded sleeping bags and photo albums into the back of their pickup truck.
Although the Lappingas' street was only one block north of burning hillsides, neighbors there felt safe enough to stand on their lawns all night watching the mountains burn.
"It was like a block party," Lappinga said.
Naval Base on Alert
Just before dawn, the Hidden Valley fire roared down a final hillside across Pacific Coast Highway from the Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station firing range--three-quarters of a mile from the base's main structures.
The firing range was evacuated at 8:10 a.m. and all ammunition removed.
"We don't anticipate evacuating the base, but we have everyone standing by," said Cmdr. John Kelley, base executive officer. About 600 base residences were notified of the fire through a closed-circuit television channel.
"At about 6:30 we watched it just sweep down the mountain," CHP Officer Mike Robbins said. "If you can imagine it, the entire hillside was solid burning flame. It was incredible."
Renee Groux was one of four firefighters from Point Mugu who tried to protect the communications facilities on the hillside.
"It came at us and it was intense and it was hot," she said. "At one point, we got real nervous, because it was bearing down on us. But we stood our ground."
Scorched but Standing
Down Pacific Coast Highway toward Malibu, on a hilltop up Deer Creek Road, real estate broker Richard Jenson also counted himself among the stout-hearted and fortunate.
All but three of Jenson's 96 acres burned. But the three acres left unscathed are around his house, which was scorched but still standing.
Awakened at 5:30 a.m. by smoke as fire swept up the hill toward his house, Jenson called fire officials early and was told no one could respond.
"We were 10 minutes away from leaving when we saw three or four yellow (fire) trucks pull up about 7:30. These guys saved the day," Jenson said of the Ventura County Fire Department.
A resident of the ranch for 8 1/2 years, it was his second fire, but "this fire was much worse."
Jenson videotaped the whole thing.
"It comes right at you. You panic. You don't what to do. So you videotape it," he said looking into the scorched canyon.
It reminded him, he said, of "a crater on the moon."
'Our Place for 80 Years'
Six hours had passed since a small fire first ignited at Steckel Park north of Santa Paula. Since then, the stiff morning winds had swept the blaze west onto Jack and Josie Willett's 150-acre ranch off Wheeler Canyon Road.