California suburbs again under siege from wind-driven fires

Flames consume a home on Via Arroyo as a wildfire rages in Ventura, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

VENTURA, CA (AP) — For the second time in two months, wind-driven fires tore through California communities in the middle of the night, leaving rows of homes and a psychiatric hospital in ruins Tuesday and sending tens of thousands of people fleeing for their lives.

There were no immediate reports of any deaths or serious injuries in the blazes burning in Southern California’s Ventura County, on the edge of Los Angeles and in inland San Bernardino County.

The Ventura wildfire broke out Monday and grew wildly to nearly 80 square miles (207 square kilometers). It was fanned by dry Santa Ana winds clocked at well over 60 mph (96 kph) that grounded firefighting helicopters and planes.

Lisa Kermode ignored the first evacuation alert that buzzed on her phone when it said the fire was 15 miles away. But the flames were nearly on top of her an hour later when she rounded up her three children, still in their pajamas, and told them to grab some jeans.

They returned home Tuesday to find their world in ashes, including a Christmas tree and the presents they had just bought.

“We got knots in our stomach coming back up here,” Kermode said. “We lost everything, everything, all our clothes, anything that was important to us. All our family heirlooms — it’s not sort of gone, it’s completely gone.”

A smaller fire erupted on the northern edge of Los Angeles, threatening the Sylmar and Lakeview Terrace neighborhoods, where residents scrambled to get out as heavy smoke billowed over the city, creating a health hazard for millions of people.

Just eight weeks ago, wildfires that broke out in Northern California and its wine country killed 44 people and destroyed 8,900 homes and other buildings.

Fires aren’t typical in Southern California this time of year but can break out when dry vegetation and too little rain combine with the Santa Ana winds. Hardly any measurable rain has fallen in the region in the past six months.

Like the deadly October fires in Napa and Sonoma counties, the blazes are in areas more suburban than rural.

“That means that there are going to be far greater numbers that are going to be evacuated, as we’re seeing now. And counties and cities are going to have to expand their budgets,” said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College who has written extensively about wildfires. “These fires are not just fast and furious, but they’re really expensive to fight.”

The early official count was that at least 150 structures burned in the Ventura County fire, but it was sure to go higher.

Mansions and modest homes alike were in flames. The Hawaiian Village Apartments burned to the ground. The Vista del Mar Hospital, which treats patients with mental problems or substance abuse, including veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome, smoldered after burning overnight.

Aerial footage showed dozens of homes in one neighborhood burned to the ground and a large subdivision in jeopardy as the flames spit out embers that could spark new blazes.

More than 27,000 people were evacuated, and one firefighter suffered bumps and bruises in a vehicle accident in Ventura County.

The fire erupted near Santa Paula, a city of some 30,000 people about 60 miles (97 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles known for its citrus and avocado orchards and farm fields along the Santa Clara River.

“We had the fire come through here, pretty dramatically, all night long,” said Karen Heath-Karayan, who stayed up with her husband to douse embers that rained on their home and small lot where they sell Christmas trees. “It was really scary.”

They were ordered to evacuate as flames got within about 100 yards (90 meters), but they decided to stand their ground to protect their property, where they have chickens and goats.

They hosed down their roof and hit hotspots before winds pushed the fire over a hill toward neighboring Ventura, a city of 106,000 where more people were ordered to clear out.

“It was just exponential, huge growth because the winds, 50 mile an hour out of the east, were just pushing it and growing it very, very large, very quickly,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said shortly after sunrise.

Thomas Aquinas College, with about 350 students, was evacuated.

The fire on the northern edge of Los Angeles was estimated at more than 6 square miles (15 square kilometers) and had burned homes, though no immediate damage estimates were released. About 2,500 homes were ordered evacuated.

Alan Barnard watched flames come downhill toward his Lakeview Terrace home and told his wife to grab their 11-month-old grandson and leave. He stayed to collect a few possessions and then took his dog and left the quiet cul-de-sac.

When he returned later, a bedroom and his garage were destroyed, but three-quarters of the house remained intact.

“We’re pretty much out of the main danger now,” he said as he tried to spray hotspots with a garden hose. “We consider ourselves very lucky.”

Southern California’s gusty Santa Ana winds have long contributed to some of the region’s most disastrous wildfires. They blow from the inland West toward the Pacific Ocean, speeding up as they squeeze through mountain passes and canyons.

Nearly 180,000 customers in the Ventura County lost power, and schools in the district were closed. Some firefighting efforts were hampered when pumping stations lost power.

___

Melley reported from Los Angeles. Amanda Lee Myers in Ventura and Michael Balsamo and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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