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Fleeing the flames in Southern California

Hundreds in several Ventura County communities escape a fast-moving blaze that marches to the sea. Three fires in the Inland Empire also drive residents out.

May 02, 2013|By Christine Mai-Duc, Steve Chawkins and Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times

Terry Doebler woke up choking from the smoke.

Doebler, 80, and her 82-year-old husband, Paul — retired New York transplants living in the Camarillo Springs neighborhood of Ventura County — had seen brushfires before in their 15 years there, but this was the first time a blaze forced them to evacuate.

"I opened the front door and the whole mountain was on fire," Paul Doebler said.

The Doeblers were among hundreds of residents in several Ventura County communities who fled their homes Thursday to escape a fast-moving brush fire that burned 8,000 acres and threatened thousands of homes. Hundreds of firefighters struggled to protect houses from the blaze, which damaged 15 homes and was about 10% contained late Thursday. Meanwhile, similar dry, windy conditions drove fires that destroyed homes, cars and a boat elsewhere in Southern California.

The Springs fire erupted before 7 a.m. off the southbound 101 freeway and burned across the Camarillo landscape, scorching 100 acres in less than an hour. By afternoon, the fire had made its way to Point Mugu State Park on a trek toward the ocean. It finally hit the coast late Thursday evening.

Cal State Channel Islands and multiple neighborhoods were evacuated as Santa Ana winds blew the flames southwest, and a stretch of Pacific Coast Highway was temporarily closed in the afternoon and again in the evening.

High winds and radiant heat forced officials to ground four fixed-winged air tankers that had dropped thousands of gallons of flame retardant on brush in the afternoon, leaving them to fight the flames on the ground and with helicopters that carry much less water.

With air operations concluded for the night, fire crews were battling flames with shovels, chain saws and fire engines.

"We're fighting it the old-fashioned down-and-dirty way with boots on the ground," Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Bill Nash told KTLA Channel 5. "It's hot, dangerous, dirty work."

TV news outlets showed a house engulfed in flames Thursday evening. Fire and sheriff's officials had no reports of homes destroyed.

The Doeblers and their yellow Labrador retriever, Mandy, joined dozens of evacuees clustered in small groups around the sanctuary of Camarillo's Calvary Nexus church, one of two evacuation centers set up by the American Red Cross.

Some were picking at paper plates of ziti with meat sauce that had been doled out by volunteers. Most couldn't take their eyes off the stadium-size TV screen at the front of the room, with its nonstop coverage of the blaze that had driven them out.

Others packed their possessions and prepared to flee but watched in relief as the blaze passed them by.

Daniel and Leslie Burns left work and rushed back to the Dos Vientos area of Newbury Park at mid-morning to find flames 30 feet high racing down a hill toward their two-story house, pushed by winds gusting to 40 mph.

Friends had already evacuated their dog, said Leslie Burns, 54, a teacher at Moorpark High School. They hurriedly packed photographs, important papers and medications, and prepared to flee.

But then the winds shifted. Erratic, hot winds blew the fire farther south into untouched brush in the hillsides above Newbury Park.

Pediatrician Paul Whyte was at work Thursday morning when his wife called to tell him the fire was in their backyard and helicopters were overhead.

He drove up his street to his large house at the end of Via Nicola, a cul-de-sac that abuts the hills where the fire burned.

"I saw my house, and then I saw the flames, two to three stories high, behind and above my house. I thought, 'That's not good,' " he said.

His wife and children had already evacuated with the family dogs, but Whyte stayed to monitor the situation. Firefighters told him they were controlling the fire and allowing it to burn out.

Whyte had a business card in his pocket from a landscaping service that specializes in weed abatement. He had planned to pay thousands of dollars to clean up the shrubbery, but now he looked around at his charred property.

"I'll have to call him now and tell him not to come tomorrow," he said with a laugh, looking at the card. "I'm somewhere between numb and ecstatic."

Firefighters hoped to gain control overnight, when temperatures typically drop and winds die down.

But weather officials warned of ongoing fire danger through Friday due to hot, dry conditions and continuing gusty winds. The National Weather Service issued a red flag fire danger warning Thursday evening for Los Angeles and Ventura counties, effective through 5 p.m. Friday. Temperatures were expected to approach record levels in some areas Friday afternoon.

While the Springs fire in Ventura County covered the most territory, dry conditions and high winds also drove destructive fires in the Inland Empire.

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