Two separate fires in the Oxnard area left 34 men, women and children homeless Saturday after flames tore through an Oxnard apartment building and scorched a Nyeland Acres home, fire officials said.
No one was injured in either blaze, although an Oxnard firefighter was treated at a local hospital for smoke inhalation.
The first blaze, which started about 10 a.m. in a tiny Nyeland Acres house, caused $30,000 in damage and displaced 17 people, Ventura County Fire Department officials said. It was started by a child playing with matches, officials said.
The second fire began shortly before 1:30 p.m. in an apartment complex in the 500 block of West Channel Islands Boulevard, Oxnard Fire Department officials said.
The fast-moving flames gutted three apartments and seared two others, displacing 17 people and causing $400,000 in damage, officials said. The cause is under investigation.
Oxnard Battalion Chief Hank Lenhart said the blaze ignited so quickly that firefighters could see plumes of black smoke nearly three miles away as they raced to the 12-unit complex.
"When I arrived, we had the apartments fully involved in smoke and flames," Lenhart said. "And there were flames issuing from all the windows."
Oxnard Fire Capt. George Todd said the fire was so intense that it burned a palm tree 20 feet away.
"It was ripping," he said. "Fortunately, there was nobody inside."
When firefighters initially arrived on the scene, they were told two children were trapped inside. Although this later proved to be untrue, the possibility pushed firefighters into high gear, Lenhart said.
"Any firefighter hears that, the adrenaline goes up higher than it is," Lenhart said. Using six engines, one ladder truck and two rescue squads, firefighters knocked down the blaze just before 2 p.m.
Josie Ruiz, who lived in the complex with her five children, said the fire caught her by surprise.
"I didn't smell anything. I didn't see anything," she said. "I heard the kids yelling, 'Mom get out! Mom there's a fire, get out!' "
Standing by the blackened beige stucco building, resident Romeo Chicas held a wet bundle of charred letters a firefighter had salvaged from the rubble that used to be his home.
The letters were from his family in El Salvador and dated back to his arrival in the United States 15 years ago, he explained. Earlier in the day, Chicas had been relaxing by the apartment complex pool when he heard children yelling "fire," he said.
"I thought they were just playing," he said. When he realized the fire was real, he ran inside the burning building to look for his 9-month-old baby. He later found her safe outside with his wife and three other children.
"Thank God she wasn't in there," said Chicas, a foreman for Goodyear Tire Co. who was treated by paramedics at the scene for smoke inhalation.
Fire Investigator Richard Rodriguez said it may be impossible to determine the exact cause of the blaze. "There's a lot of damage out there and nobody saw anything," he said.
Ventura County firefighters battling the earlier blaze in Nyeland Acres prevented flames from spreading beyond the bedroom, but smoke damage throughout the Orange Drive house made it uninhabitable, officials said.
"When we got on scene, all the occupants were outside and there were flames and smoke coming out of the front bedroom window," Capt. Ranger Dorn said. "Our investigation has indicated the fire was started by children or a child playing with matches."
Dorn said the residents were lucky: "If it had been a different time of day or night, it could have been a different outcome."
The Ventura County chapter of the American Red Cross is providing housing, food and clothing for residents displaced by both fires.
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Two separate structure fires in west Ventura County on Saturday displaced more than 30 people. (see newspaper for map)