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Moorpark residents are well-prepared for wildfire

They've been through two other major blazes in recent years and are taking precautions, but also are ready to leave if necessary.

September 24, 2009|Catherine Saillant and Robert Faturechi

For Moorpark's seasoned fire veterans Wednesday, the latest major brush fire to threaten ranches and subdivisions -- even a small zoo -- was almost taken in stride. Everyone knew what to do.

On Griffith Lane, just a few mountain ridges away from the fire's front line, Verna Murrell and Kevin Kiely already had suitcases packed and their most important photographs and documents on a digital file.

At nearby Moorpark College, students enrolled in a zoo management program spent the morning putting several of 135 animals in their small campus zoo into crates, ready to move them out at a moment's notice. Further west, in a hilly area of large avocado and citrus ranches, growers had sprinklers running and were checking on neighbors to see if they needed help.

"If we see firetrucks pull up, we'll start thinking about leaving," Kevin Kiely said as he watched his wife snap a few photographs of a DC-10 dropping bright-pink streams of fire retardant less than a mile away from their home. "Right now, it's not too bad."

Ventura County has seen its share of wildfires in the last decade, and Moorpark has been especially hard hit. The Shekell fire in 2006 scorched 13,600 acres and destroyed five homes and two commercial properties. Three years earlier, the Simi fire blackened more than 108,200 acres in Moorpark and Simi Valley, destroying two dozen homes.

So when the Guiberson fire broke out Tuesday, Moorpark residents reacted with battle-hardened resolve to limit their panic. "We've learned to stay calm and get ready," said Mark Ayoub, 70, who lives in a northern Moorpark suburb with his wife, Nuha. Their car has been packed for a speedy evacuation since Tuesday night, when flames from the five-mile-long front licked down the mountains near their home.

By late Wednesday, the fire had consumed 16,100 acres and was 40% contained, fire officials said. Flames were moving steadily over steep mountains covered in light brush, pushed by Santa Ana winds gusting about 25 mph, said Robert Lewin, an incident commander for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Officials now believe the fire started Tuesday in a mulch pile south of Fillmore, not manure as earlier reported. Flames spread rapidly south toward Moorpark because of strong winds, authorities said.

On Wednesday, lighter winds were aiding firefighters as they made an aggressive aerial attack on the fire's southern and western flanks, using 21 helicopters and eight air tankers, including the DC-10.

More than 1,800 firefighters were battling the flames Wednesday and five have been injured, fire officials said. Low humidity, combined with a continued mild Santa Ana condition and high temperatures, will make the fire dangerous for several more days.

Officials hope to reach full containment early Saturday. "We are hitting it hard with crews on the ground and aircraft in the air, and that's been effective at slowing it down," Lewin said.

About 1,000 homes were under voluntary evacuation in the north Moorpark area, but officials late Wednesday said they would begin reopening some roads and allowing residents to return. No homes were immediately threatened but the fire is presenting a threat to oil fields, orchards and utilities.

As the firefighters did their work, foothill residents were making their own preparations. Rancher Ron Warne, 66, said the fire had reached the border of his 70-acre property on two sides Tuesday night. But he and several of his ranch hands battled the embers with a water truck and shovels.

On Wednesday, Warne was repairing a water main that had broken during the previous night's commotion. "We weren't really scared about this," he said. "We know what to do."

Close by, Mel Hoffman was running water in his small orchard and had set upright sprinklers on the ground every 20 feet or so. He'd turn those on too if the fire comes close enough, said Hoffman, 88.

The Shekell fire in 2006 was much worse, burning to within yards of his home, said the retired dentist, a former World War II fighter pilot. "I know what to do, and if it gets too close, I invite the fire department in," he said jokingly.

Back at Moorpark College, zoo supervisor Michlyn Hines said she has come to view the frequent fires as a great learning experience for students in the exotic animal training and management program.

During brush fires, the students take rotating shifts to serve as fire watchers. They are instructed to alert Hines as soon as fire comes over a certain ridge so they can step up the evacuation of the zoo.

Hines also stresses a calm approach when dealing with the animals.

"Animals are highly sensitive to our moods," she said. "We teach the students that they need to be calm -- even if they're evacuating in the middle of the night."

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catherine.saillant @latimes.com

robert.faturechi @latimes.com

Times staff writers Nicole Santa Cruz, Alexandra Zavis and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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