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Ventura County

Chief Takes Heat for Fire Defense

Moorpark residents tell Bob Roper more should have been done to protect their homes. But others praise the crews.

November 11, 2003|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper met Monday night with dozens of residents whose homes were either destroyed or threatened in recent wildfires that scorched more than 170,000 acres throughout the region.

About 50 county residents gathered at the Moorpark Community Center to share their experiences with fire officials. Some praised firefighters for their work, while others complained that more could have been done to protect their property.

Moorpark residents John and Nancy Gray, who lost their "dream house" on Walnut Canyon Road, said they were told by Huntington Beach fire crews that the firefighters would protect their home from the flames. But they said the crews were called away before the fire engulfed their 4,000-square-foot residence, which sat on a five-acre avocado orchard.

"I called 911 four times and got no response," Nancy Gray said. "Why do I live here if the Moorpark Fire Department couldn't come up to save my home? I feel totally betrayed I am extremely disappointed in this city."

Mike Young, another Moorpark resident, said he was among dozens of city residents who found themselves forced to protect their own properties because of limited fire personnel.

"As we were fighting the fires in our backyards, we saw the aerial tankers flying overhead," Young said. "There's no doubt in my mind, if we didn't stay behind, these small fires would have grown into major structure fires."

Rosalie Gehres, a resident of the Villa del Arroyo Mobile Home Estates in Moorpark, where two homes were gutted, praised firefighters for their efforts to protect the community.

"I can only commend the Fire Department for the work they did," she said. "I understand they had to set backfires to save our 240 homes."

After the meeting, Roper said he sympathized with those who lost their homes. But he said it's difficult to prepare for or anticipate all the difficulties one can encounter fighting a blaze of the magnitude of the Simi fire.

"Our coordination could have been better," he said. "We had trouble at night and when the weather kept us from flying. We were outgunned by this fire."

He said the Simi fire burned up to 10,000 acres an hour at its peak. By the time the seven-day wildfire was contained on Nov. 1, more than 108,000 acres had been scorched, with two dozen homes destroyed and 14 others damaged, according to fire officials. The cost of fighting the fire has been estimated at $9.8 million.

And while the Simi fire is in the history books, the Piru fire, now concentrated in the Los Padres National Forest, remains about 90% contained, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The fire has burned more than 64,000 acres.

"It's pretty close to the end," said Joe Pasinato, an agency spokesman.

The number of people fighting the Piru blaze is down to about 30, mostly monitoring hot spots, Pasinato said. Two water-dropping helicopters stand ready but haven't been used since Friday because of inclement weather and the fact that firefighters have gotten the upper hand, he said.

Concerned property owners are expected to attend another public meeting in Moorpark this evening sponsored by the state Department of Insurance, the second in a series of information and assistance workshops in Southern California this week. As part of a four-city tour that began Monday, Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi will host the 6:30 p.m. session at the Community Center, 799 Moorpark Ave.

Garamendi will be joined tonight by Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara); representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Office of Emergency Services; and Mike Miller of the California FAIR Plan, a state-coordinated fire-policy network for homeowners who couldn't otherwise obtain insurance. Candysse Miller of the Insurance Information Network of California and other industry officials are also expected to attend.

Garamendi is scheduled to appear at a similar workshop in San Diego on Wednesday and in San Bernardino on Friday. For information on the workshops, visit the agency's Web site: www.insurance.ca.gov.

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