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Ojai Keeping Its Cool in Fire


Homeowners in the rugged hills above Ojai are watching and waiting--and hoping for the best.

This is the fourth time 80-year-old Jerry Peterson has watched as wildfires approached his red-tiled home. The worst was in 1985, when a 125,000-acre blaze roared down the mountain, and Peterson used his own fire hose and water tank to save his house.

When your backyard is the Los Padres National Forest you learn to be prepared, the retired builder said.

"On a clear day, I can see Anacapa Island from my deck," Peterson said of his home up a twisting private road, about 12 miles from the front lines of the Wolf fire. "But the flip side is that when you've got mountains all around you, fire is a constant threat."

Vigilant but not yet worried, Ojai residents went about their daily routines Wednesday as 1,700 firefighters battled a forest fire that is out of control in the mountains north of the city.

Now in its fifth day, residents are coping with a nearly constant stream of ash that settles over cars, clothes and patios. Firetrucks rumble through downtown and helicopters thump overhead.

Though flames are hidden by high mountain ridges, each afternoon the skies fill with huge plumes of smoke, casting a yellowish light.

"There's this gloomy, eerie feeling that is unavoidable," said Jenni Mack, a 28-year-old college student who stopped to chat with friends at a local coffeehouse. "It's surreal."

But longtime residents know it could be much worse.

In the 1985 Wheeler fire, the flames came into the city, nearly consuming Joy Grove's home. Firefighters managed to save the house, she said.

"It burned until it looked like a moonscape everywhere," she said of her five-acre property.

Like others, Grove is making sure that the thousands of firefighters battling the Wolf fire know they are appreciated. Grove printed a bunch of large buttons that say, "Ojai Loves Firefighters" and "Firefighters Rock!"

She's selling the buttons, at 50 cents a pop at her surplus store, along with a lot of socks for weary firefighters. The fire crews get the buttons for free.

"Whenever the firefighters come, we always welcome them," she said. "I mean, they save our lives."

So far the fire has not disrupted business in the tourist-dependent town. At the Ojai Valley Inn, Carmen Hofer of Arcadia said news about the wildfire did not deter her from enjoying a four-day getaway with her mother, daughter, a girlfriend and two grandsons.

"When I talked to my husband last night he said, 'Are you sure you're OK?' But look, it's beautiful here," Hofer said. "You can't even tell there's a fire."

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