Just hours after firefighters declared it was fully contained, the smoldering wildfire that started last week in Thousand Oaks came to life again Tuesday, sending 60-foot-high flames roaring down coastal mountains and around a beachfront condo complex in the southernmost tip of Ventura County.
The flare-up came as Ventura County Fire Chief George E. Lund was telling the Board of Supervisors that property damage in the fire topped $12 million--a figure almost twice as high as previous estimates--and county firefighting costs totaled $9 million.
The wind-driven rebirth of the 8-day-old, 42,644-acre fire near the Los Angeles County line came late in the morning, just as firefighters were being dispatched to a huge new blaze across the Los Angeles County line in Topanga Canyon near Malibu.
Fearing the two fires could mesh and destroy everything between them, Ventura County commanders ordered up reserves and sent dozens of strike teams to the Pacific Coast Highway to battle the new offshoot of the Green Meadow fire as it threatened more than a dozen coastal homes in Ventura County.
After sending home more than half the firefighters from the Thousand Oaks command post by Monday, officials there tore down a "Check Out" sign and replaced it with a "Check In" sign.
By nightfall, the offshoot fire had grown to more than 750 acres, but Lund predicted it could be surrounded with firebreaks overnight.
"Overall, things are looking much better for Ventura County," said Lund. "From what I'm told, I believe they'll get around it tonight. Our chief there is pretty optimistic."
Embers had rekindled in the 45 m.p.h. wind gusts and spread quickly from spot blazes to a mile-wide line of crackling flame that leaped over canyons and threatened beachfront homes along the Pacific Coast Highway.
The fire destroyed brush in Leo Carillo State Park in Los Angeles County and surrounded the nearby Malibu Bay Club, a condominium complex across the county line in Ventura County on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Flames jumped Pacific Coast Highway about 2 p.m. Tuesday just west of the Ventura County line.
Jack Kirchner, a state parks ranger, was doing his best to protect Leo Carillo State Beach when the wind shifted and sent flames toward his Ventura County home half a mile away.
By the time he arrived, flames had raced down both sides of his property and reached the ocean. Then the fire worked its way back up a slope and into his back yard. Firefighters were already working to save the house, spraying water over the brush between his back yard and the beach.
"A 60-foot wall of flames was reaching right over the house," said Kirchner, who had lived in the home with his fiancee and four children for only about two months.
Kirchner's fiancee had left to pick up the children at school about half an hour before the fire surrounded the house on all sides. "If the firefighters would not have been here I would have lost everything."
Next door, residents of the Malibu Bay Club sprayed water from garden hoses on fires that crept right to the edge of the cliff-side condominium complex.
"It roared right through here," said condo owner Sean Ryan, still in disbelief that flames had jumped the four-lane coastal highway. "Now we're just trying to save our homes."
After preparing to evacuate last week because fire threatened her hillside home, Tongareva Street resident Pamela Campbell said she had just unpacked all her belongings.
But when fire moved along the ridge above the house, Campbell repacked her most cherished possessions and readied for a quick exit.
"The smoke was so bad. It was just billowing over this way," said Campbell, her blue Volvo loaded down with caged cats and rabbits. "I thought it was over."
By 5 p.m., the fire threat to Ventura County had eased. Wisps of white smoke still rose from the hillsides, but many fire crews that had been working in Ventura County were sent to Topanga Canyon and Malibu to fight the blaze there.
Ventura County Assistant Fire Chief Dave Festerling said crews were still working in the hillsides above Pacific Coast Highway to shore up a fire line that flames had crossed earlier Tuesday afternoon.
"Given this fire and the wind, we knew this blaze had real great potential," he said of the entire Green Meadow fire, as hillsides at Leo Carillo glowed orange around him. "We're trying to hold it right here at PCH."
"I've spoken to officials to the south of here and we are placing the Topanga-Malibu fire as the top priority" in Southern California, Lund said. The Riverside County fire is ranked second priority by commanders around the region, and the Green Meadow holds third place, he said.
Gov. Pete Wilson had decreed Monday that firefighters be allowed to vote by provisional ballot at their command posts.
Firefighters cast ballots at several posts around Ventura County, many anxious to support Prop. 172. That measure keeps in place a soon-to-expire half-cent sales tax to support public safety.