OJAI, CALIFORNIA (WASHINGTON POST) - The flames came from all sides, tearing across cliffs and roaring down mountains, burning through homes and engulfing cars. Entire communities were evacuated, forcing people to grab what they could and flee as raging wildfires spread rapidly across Southern California on Wednesday (Dec 6).
Yet even as they scrambled for shelter from the choking smoke and flames that shrouded idyllic communities in apocalyptic imagery, many worried about the dangers still to come. Officials warned that the wildfire threat could increase through the end of the week, with the same conditions fuelling the fires forecast to intensify.
The wildfires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties have forced tens of thousands to vacate and have destroyed hundreds of structures, emptying homes, hospitals, schools and multi million-dollar mansions alike. In Ventura County, the Thomas Fire burned across 35,430ha on Wednesday evening, spreading through an area roughly half the size of Singapore.
Los Angeles County faced comparatively smaller blazes in the Rye and Creek fires, both of which erupted on Tuesday north of downtown Los Angeles.
A new blaze, known as the Skirball Fire, began burning Wednesday morning in Bel Air, shutting down Interstate 405 - one of the country's busiest freeways - and forcing evacuations across the posh neighbourhood and areas near the University of California at Los Angeles campus. Officials confronted that growing fire while still facing the Creek Fire, which had crept into the city.
"Our plan here is to try to stop this fire before it becomes something bigger, so that we don't have to have... a two-front war," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told reporters.
"These are days that break your heart. But these are also days that show the resilience of our city." That resilience could face serious tests in coming days. The National Weather Service said that increased winds are expected overnight into Thursday (Dec 7), which could make Southern California vulnerable to new fires and "extreme fire behaviour", with conditions potentially worsening throughout the day. The dangerous fire conditions have been fuelled by Santa Ana winds, dry weather and parched vegetation - the combination enabling wildfires that have grown wildly.
Not far from the Skirball Fire, residents and visitors alike were weighing whether to stay. Two roommates who live in the Brentwood area packed their bags and were "just hanging tight", said one of the men, Wes Luttrell, 23. Montevis Price, who was visiting Los Angeles from Miami, promptly checked out of his hotel when he saw the blaze. "I saw the little mountain on fire, and that was it," Price said. "You can prepare for a hurricane, but you can't prepare for something that happens all of a sudden."
California Governor Jerry Brown declared states of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties due to the fires, and his office said the blazes threatened thousands of homes. By Wednesday afternoon, officials said no deaths have been recorded as a result of the blazes, but some areas were not yet accessible.
Day appeared as night along the coast, the smoke-masked sun casting a deep red light. Flames burned down chaparral-covered cliffs toward Highway 101 along a 6km stretch in Ventura County, with the blaze blowing over in night-time winds from the valleys to the east.
Officials said the wildfire that forced evacuations of portions of Ojai, a popular winter retreat with about 8,000 residents, began burning toward Santa Barbara County on Wednesday.
For some, the flames had already consumed nearly everything they had.
The fire began beneath David and Theresa Brock's house in upper Ojai about sundown Monday, jumping the road and sprinting up toward them. But a shifting wind pushed it away within a few hundred yards, and the couple believed their home of 12 years was safe. They stayed up through the night, smoke covering the grounds around them. "I thought we were doing great, real great," said Brock, a state-certified operator of public water systems.
About 4am on Tuesday local time, the winds shifted again. The fire raced toward them, covering 8km in 15 minutes. Brock turned to Theresa and said, "Let's get outside in the dirt". The couple keep cattle, and the wide grazed area outside their hilltop home acted as a natural fire break. "At least out here," he told her, "there's nothing to catch fire". As the couple watched the flames approach, a transformer exploded adjacent to their home, igniting a pepper tree.
Sparks were sucked into their attic. "Then we saw smoke coming out of the vent," Brock, 57, said. "And I thought, 'Well, that's it, we can't save it now.' "Brock pulled his Ford Torino and tractor out of the garage, keeping them in the fire break, and with the help of firefighters, managed to pull a few items out of his house."But what do you take?" he said.
He chose a few family photos, but the cedar chest where Theresa kept the family documents burned. "Then I just stood back and watched," he said. "You see these people on TV who have lost everything, and you can't imagine it, until it's you. Now I am that person. I have the clothes on my back."
Others felt the fear of what could come next. "I'm scared," said Beth Dorenkamp, a 25-year Ojai resident. "I saw the fire start at the east end of town, like a plume, but I never thought it would end up like this."
Dorenkamp and Kathe Hanson huddled on a chilly morning at the Riverview Ranch in the Meiners Oaks neighbourhood, which had been threatened but spared on Tuesday as the Thomas Fire grew.
The women keep horses at the ranch and spent a mostly sleepless Tuesday night keeping watch over them.
"We all have trailers ready to go, but all of the roads are closed," said Hanson, masked against the falling ash, holding the reins of her horse, Mozart. "So we're sleeping in the barn and waiting to see what happens."
Around the property, Ford F-250 and Toyota Tundra pickups were hitched to trailers, ready to evacuate some of the 80 horses stabled there. The escape route had narrowed significantly, though, with some of the roads north into Santa Barbara County threatened by fire.
Word of mouth appeared the most common form of neighborhood news gathering, with cellular service spotty in the best of times in these high canyons, the power unstable because of the fire and the Internet out in parts of the city.
The Carver family fled their home in Meiners Oak on Tuesday morning with flames less than 1km from their property. "We'd been up all night watching it," said Cindy Carver, who moved to Ojai about eight years ago with her husband, Thomas, and their two children, Caleb and Danika.
Thomas, a family therapist, let the turkeys, goats and chickens the family raises loose in their pens. He and Cindy grabbed the passports, a couple wedding photos, a little cash and jewellery and corralled the kids into the camper. They also grabbed Hondo and Jetta, two rescue dogs, their four cats and 10 kittens. "There was a point where I just thought I was going to lose it, and then we all said, 'It's just stuff,'" Thomas said.
Caleb, 12, and Danika, 8, attend Ojai Valley School, which was closed, like the others in the area. The upper campus was damaged Tuesday, when a girls dormitory burned down along with several other buildings.
But the students had been evacuated early, a decision that Cindy Carver praised.
Caleb Carver said he was amazed that as they left home, everything around him seemed to be taking place as it did any other day - a man riding his bicycle through the smoke, a hiker on a nearby nature preserve trail. "How are people so normal about this?" he said.