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Ventura County

Fire Above Ojai Rages Unabated

Sespe Wilderness: Shifting winds, dry weather and rugged terrain hinder crews. Blaze 'is like an out-of-control locomotive,' official says.

June 04, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES and JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Stoked by hot, dry weather and churning winds, a wildfire 12 miles north of Ojai more than doubled in size to more than 6,000 acres Monday as an expanding crew of firefighters struggled to contain it.

"This fire is out of control," said Darren Drake, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, as he watched 20-foot-high flames on a ridge in the Sespe Wilderness. "The wind has been dictating the fire. Right now, this thing is like an out-of-control locomotive."

More than 1,000 firefighters from around the state were attacking the blaze, officials said.

The arid conditions--perfect for a wildfire when combined with tinder-dry pine trees and chaparral--are expected to continue through Wednesday, with temperatures climbing into the 90s. But winds should dwindle to about 15 mph.

Thick brown smoke dropped white soot on much of the Ojai Valley on Monday. Ashes reached as far as Thousand Oaks, coating sidewalks, cars and lawns.

The blaze, which began Saturday and is one of four wildfires burning in Southern California, showed no signs of slowing as officials prepared to bring in additional firefighters specially trained to battle large wildfires.

Firefighters on the front lines said the weather, along with steep and rugged terrain, were hindering their ability to get the blaze under control.

There are no access roads in the federally protected Sespe Wilderness, and federal law prohibits the use there of bulldozers, chain saws and other mechanical equipment, officials said.

"It's a pretty inaccessible area," said Walt Mendoza, a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, as he pumped water from Tule Creek into a firetruck. "We're stuck here on the road."

Mendoza said he was among the first firefighters on the scene Saturday as the blaze burned through the Felt Ranch and destroyed several abandoned cabins and equipment sheds. Mendoza and other firefighters narrowly escaped injury after the flames swept through their position.

"We were there for 30 minutes when things went bad," said Mendoza, 37, of Ventura as he stood among burning embers in a field of charred brush. "This looks like it's going to be a real bad season."

The cause of the fire remained under investigation. It began about 3 p.m. at the Pine Mountain Inn and moved east quickly, paralleling California 33. Fanned by steady winds, it broke into two fronts Sunday.

Monday morning, fire officials said a key objective was to keep the flames from heading northeast into the heavily wooded terrain along the Pine Mountain ridge and Reyes Peak.

By the afternoon, they were forced to change tactics after the winds pushed the flames toward the 7,000-foot peak.

"This tiger is uncontrollable at this point, because it's moving in all directions," said Joe Duran, deputy logistics chief for Los Padres National Forest. "We need to be cautious and let it do its thing."

Although the fire is burning in remote back country and has so far threatened no homes, Duran said the loss of vegetation on hillsides could cause mudslides and flooding into the streams and creeks that flow through several Ventura County cities.

"There will be nothing to hold [water] back," Duran said. "We will be living with the aftereffects for years."

Officials said 10 helicopters, and six tankers each with up to 3,000 gallons of water, were flying above the fire throughout the day. At one point, thick smoke at the head of the fire kept aircraft away.

Only 10% of the fire had been contained by Monday evening, and firefighters had no estimate for reaching full control, said Joe Pasinato, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

"When you get down to 8% humidity, it does get explosive out there," he said.

Through most of Monday, the fire was headed away from Ojai, but by late evening the wind had shifted southeast. Officials said homes were still 10 to 12 miles from the blaze. "I don't see an imminent threat right now to Ojai," Pasinato said. In the downtown area, several businesses had posted signs advertising free meals for firefighters. Several residents living along California 150 hung homemade signs from their fences wishing the firefighters luck.

At the 4,500-foot level, dozens of firefighters with pickaxes and shovels in hand trudged along winding California 33, stomping out patches of hot brush and looking for new hot spots on thickly wooded hillsides.

The blaze was moving through a section of rocky peaks and steep valleys that had been untouched by fire for 70 years. The Matilija fire in 1932 charred 219,000 acres, Pasinato said. In 1984, the Wheeler fire burned 118,000 acres and destroyed 26 homes in Ojai.

The blaze has closed a stretch of the highway and several popular campgrounds and hiking areas, including Rose Valley, Pine Mountain and Wheeler Gorge.

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