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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Firefighters Battle Blaze on Sulfur Mountain Ridge

Fire: Emergency crews gain upper hand on the slow-moving flames. Crews are aided by calm conditions.

September 07, 2000|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT and CATHERINE BLAKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OJAI — A slow-moving brush fire was burning Wednesday night on steep terrain on the Sulfur Mountain ridge, but authorities said they had the upper hand and expected total containment by tonight.

The fire started about 4 p.m. Wednesday when a Culligan Co. water delivery truck caught fire on Clark Ranch Road near Sulfur Mountain Road and ignited brush, Ventura County fire officials said.

"We're lucky this is a calm day," Rod Megli,, a Ventura County fire chief, said late Wednesday. "If we had a stiff wind on it, this would be a freight train."

A massive initial response by fire officials, who deployed 150 county and federal firefighters, along with four water-dropping aircraft and six hand crews who cleared brittle fuel, was credited for slowing a potentially major blaze.

"We are trying to throw as much on it as we can and knock it down quickly," Ventura County Fire Battalion Chief Larry Whelan said. "Look at the potential, we have to keep it small."

As of 10 p.m., 72 acres had burned and the fire was moving slowly east. It was estimated to be 40% contained, officials said late Wednesday.

During the early stages of the fire, three homes on Clark Ranch Road were briefly threatened but fire officials moved water trucks to the area quickly. There were no forced evacuations but several residents who were driving home had to wait in their cars for about an hour when Creek Ranch Road was briefly closed.

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Smoke from the blaze could be seen 20 miles away in Oxnard, residents said. From the air, officials said the fire burned a narrow path and snaked over small ridges and through valleys.

People throughout the Ojai Valley watched as fixed-wing tanker planes dumped large loads of bright red fire retardant around the blaze and two helicopters dropped more than a dozen loads of water.

Shortly after the blaze started, a county firefighter was injured when a hose he was adjusting snapped and struck him in the ankle and spit some fire retardant in his eye. He was treated at the scene.

County hazardous materials specialists were also dispatched when flames ignited several 55-gallon containers full of a flammable liquid, causing the drums to burst. The containers were in the fire's path in a junkyard, officials said. It was unclear what, if any, environmental impact the explosions may have had.

The area that was burning was west of Ojai and south of Oak View in mountainous terrain covered with oak trees, sage and grass. The blaze was being fought primarily from the air because of the steep, rocky conditions.

From the frontyard of her home on Oak Knoll Road, Donna Moore could see a steady stream of smoke on the horizon and hear the thunderous beat of aircraft every few seconds.

"I'm not too worried. There is no reason to panic as long as you keep your eyes on it," Moore said.

Moore and other residents have seen worse.

About 20 years ago a fire off Creek Road burned hundreds of acres and threatened several homes, she said. Moore said flames in that blaze licked her front porch.

"Now that was a lot of acres," she said.

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Although there was little wind and mild temperatures during Wednesday's fire, the blaze briefly threatened a farm house on Clark Ranch Road, getting within 200 yards, officials said. A mother and son were home at the time but chose not to leave and turned on several sprinklers to dampen their property. Details on the other two homes threatened were not immediately available.

In addition to firefighters, the Ventura County Sheriff's Department sent deputies to help with traffic, the American Red Cross helped concerned homeowners and county animal control officials showed up to search several ranch roads for any lost cows or other animals.

Fire officials thanked residents in the area for good weed abatement, which helped slow the fire near the threatened homes, authorities said.

"That really gave them the extra protection," said Fred Ponce, a county fire spokesman.

But there was still plenty of dry, old brush dotting the unoccupied hills.

"When you get later into the summer like this the potential is greater for fire because the forest fuel is at its lowest moisture," said Will Spryison, a fire battalion chief for Los Padres National Forest.

Despite a historic fire season throughout the nation, Ventura County has experienced only a handful of blazes since May, blazes that blackened a few hundred acres. One of the largest fires occurred late last month near Wednesday's blaze when 80 acres of brush burned near the Camp Comfort area of Creek Road.

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Times staff writer Matt Surman contributed to this report.

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