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Ojai Valley Looks Back at Devastating Wheeler Fire : Anniversary: Ten years ago today, the blaze erupted, consuming 120,000 acres and requiring 15 days and 3,000 firefighters to tame.

July 01, 1995|ANDREW D. BLECHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pat Weinberger was returning from a morning of errands in Ventura when she saw the plume of smoke above California 33.

"It was just one plume," Weinberger said. "I thought it was a small brush fire and they'd put it out in no time."

But the Fire Department wasn't dealing with just one little fire that hot afternoon back in 1985; they were dealing with an arsonist bent on starting a firestorm.

The brush fire above Wheeler Hot Springs would burn for 15 days, destroying 120,000 acres and requiring more than 3,000 firefighters from across the nation to tame it.

By comparison, the firestorms of 1993 were far smaller in terms of acreage. The devastating Green Meadow fire burned 40,000 acres; the Topanga Canyon fire, just 16,516 acres.

It was 10 years ago today that the Ojai Valley faced one of the largest forest fires in California history, and few in the region will forget what could have been a fiery demise.

It was one of those events that shapes a community for years to come, Ojai Mayor Nina V. Shelley said.

"It helped define our character," Shelley said. "We really had to pull together and help each other."

Weinberger continued home and even invited friends over to watch the fire from her deck. It seemed so distant, and relatively harmless. She cooked a chicken for dinner and went to bed.

Then the wind shifted.

The fire made its way over Nordhoff Ridge and right into Ojai. The solid wall of fire was picking up speed.

At 1:20 a.m., firefighters with bullhorns ordered Weinberger and her husband to evacuate.

"What I remember most was the noise of the fire as it came down the mountainside," Weinberger said. "When a fire is gaining on you, it sounds like a locomotive racing in full throttle."

The Weinbergers refused to evacuate and instead soaked their property with 42,000 gallons of pool water.

"We were determined not to lose our house and we didn't, thanks to the expertise of the firefighters." The fire was stopped about 50 yards from her house, but others were not so lucky--26 homes were lost in the Wheeler fire.

Battalion Chief Keith Gurrola of the Ventura County Fire Department said he knew almost immediately that the blaze was going to be epic.

"I could tell it wasn't going to be controllable," Gurrola said. "It was hot and dry and there was plenty of brush. When I saw the fire make its way to Nordhoff Ridge . . . I knew it was trouble.

"We tried to contain it to the west side of 33, but that didn't last long." Gurrola and his crew worked 11 days straight, sneaking in a few winks of sleep, an hour at a time.

The valley was more or less in the clear by July 5, when the fire switched directions and burned a wide swath of the Los Padres National Forest for another 10 days.

But like the charred stumps slowly decomposing in the canyons above Ojai, memories of the fire linger.

It took a full year for Joyce Nielsen to discover how much the fire had affected her.

"During the fire we just dealt with it," Nielsen said. "There wasn't time to do anything else."

But when she was asked to speak about the fire at an anniversary gathering a year later, she was unable to.

The memories of evacuating her children from their bedroom as the flames raced down the mountainside and toward their beds proved too formidable.

"I stood in the middle of the crowd and burst into tears. I totally lost it. I had bottled it up that long."

And yet, in the midst of the region's fight for survival, there were light moments, too.

Micah Hyman, 23, was at Camp Ramah, a co-ed Jewish summer camp, when he and 400 other kids were evacuated to Nordhoff High School at 3 a.m.

"The next morning McDonald's sent over hundreds of Egg McMuffins, but we had to return them all because we couldn't eat the ham," he said.

But fire officials warn that another Wheeler fire could be just around the corner.

"The brush is back and it will burn again," said Richard Wilson, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "I guarantee it."

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