Fire and fear stretch across Southern California as wildfires roar through communities

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OJAI, Calif. — Fire tore across the southern part of this state on Thursday, surrounding communities and shrouding much of the region in searing flame and thick, choking smoke.

Where there was no fire, there was fear.

Fear of what could come next as wildfires ravaged the state for a fourth day. Fear of what could happen if the winds shifted, if the fires moved, if new blazes erupted and were strengthened by the powerful gusts already fueling the infernos burning across Southern California,

Tens of thousands of people fled their homes, running from fires without any idea of when they could return or what they might find. They grabbed pets, clothes and mementos before hurrying off in search of shelter.

Veteran firefighters described the blazes as unlike anything they had ever encountered before. Thousands of firefighters and other first responders fanned out to save lives, protect homes and shepherd people to safety, joined by reinforcements who flocked in from other parts of the country to help fight the flames.

Officials spoke bluntly about the danger that remained through the week’s end, with “red flag” warnings of heightened fire risk extending through Saturday.

“We are a long way from being out of this weather event,” Ken Pimlott, director of Cal Fire, said at a briefing Thursday. “In some cases, the worst could be yet to come in terms of the wind.”

The National Weather Service warned that if new fires do begin, “very rapid spread and extreme fire behavior is likely.”

The massive Thomas Fire, the state’s biggest active blaze, burned across 150 square miles in Ventura County on Thursday. The blaze “continues to burn actively with extreme rates of spread,” authorities warned.

Flames from that fire surrounded Ojai, the popular winter retreat that is home to about 8,000 people, on Thursday morning, officials said. Most of the Ojai Valley had been placed under a mandatory evacuation order.

At the Ventura County Fairgrounds, over 100 fire trucks from several states had parked on Thursday, firefighters standing or sitting outside their trucks. They were taking a break after battling fires in nearby Ojai the night before, winds whipping in off of the ocean as they rested.

“This breeze is nothing,” said Shane Nollsch, who had traveled from Lyon County, Nevada, arriving at 3 a.m. Wednesday to help fight the blaze. “Yesterday you had to chew the air before you breathed it.”

Chris Mason, a firefighter who came in from Carson City, Nevada, said those who came to help had to adjust to different terrain and a new environment.

“It’s different winds, different fuels, so it’s a sharp learning curve,” Mason said. “Fire is coming down the mountain at you, especially at night, when it’s hard to see and you don’t know where the streets are.”

La Conchita, a tiny town hard against Highway 101, was threatened by flames early Thursday. The town most commonly faces danger from mudslides, but those same cliffs that give way with rain are now a rich “fuel bed” for the wildfires. Fire crews managed to keep the blaze from the town’s edge, although new lines, blown by off-shore winds, remained a peril.

Veteran firefighters said they had not seen wildfires here with the scope of this one, now extending dozens of miles from near Santa Paula in Ventura County to the edge of Carpinteria, a city of 13,000 people.

A stiffening wind blew lines of the Thomas Fire from Ojai toward Santa Barbara County through much of Thursday morning, gusts that picked up flames low on coastal mountain slopes and drove them up and over hills toward several towns along the Pacific Ocean.

Santa Barbara County began urging evacuations due to the Thomas Fire, ordering hundreds of people to leave Carpinteria, which is nestled along the Pacific Ocean between the larger cities of Santa Barbara and Ventura.

Along Rincon Mountain Road a few miles south of Carpinteria, fire crews fought several lines of flames overnight Wednesday and throughout Thursday, focused on protecting homes and ranches. A dozen Ventura County fire engines staged along the road near midday, the fire burning in the avocado and citrus orchards along the ridge-line above.

Tall stands of eucalyptus shook with the strengthening wind, which was driving the flames toward several multimillion-dollar homes, a brewery and a small vineyard. Two helicopters buzzed overhead, tailing “bambi buckets” beneath. The buckets open from the bottom, scooping up loads of water from the Pacific and Lake Casitas to drop near threatened homes and buildings. In all, about 30 homes were in immediate danger from the line of flames.

Fred Burris, a Ventura County Fire Department battalion chief, was finishing a 24-hour shift that included help protecting La Conchita. Only one outbuilding was lost early Thursday, he said, but with the wind freshening, a number of new fire lines were popping up along a 15-mile stretch of Highway 150 between Ojai and Carpinteria.

“We’re basically defending an area with homes and ranch infrastructure, seeing a new fire emerge along this stretch, then splitting off resources to send there - that’s the strategy,” said Burris, a 36-year veteran of the department. “Everyone says, ‘Yeah, this is the worst,’ but it really is the high-water mark for me. We’ve never seen a fire with this much speed and range.”

Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday that the California National Guard has activated 65 members to provide security for the wildfires.

In Los Angeles County, firefighters responded to threats on multiple fronts. The Rye and Creek fires, continued burning through a combined 29 square miles north of Los Angeles, while the Skirball Fire’s smaller reach forced evacuations in ritzy Bel Air and caused the University of California in Los Angeles to cancel classes on Thursday, just two days before final exams.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) said the “erratic and unpredictable” wind gusts will continue through Saturday, warning that the winds could whip through with speeds as high as 50 to 70 mph.

“These conditions, combined with the heat that is now . . . coming to the area, the dryness, the amount of vegetation in some of the areas still that have not burned, makes this still a very threatening environment,” he said.

In the Sunland area of Los Angeles near the Creek Fire, Ken Villegas, a horse farm owner, said earlier in the week he saw the flames jump from across the street and enter his property, burning some of his foliage but no structures.

“It was crazy,” the 56-year-old said with a laugh. “I figured it coming, the wind was blowing so hard it would’ve knocked you over.”

Firefighting helicopters passed overhead, while fire trucks still littered the area. Hot, dry wind gusts swept across the region on Thursday. Thick smoke was visible over the Kagel Canyon nearby.

Warning of “extreme” fire behavior, authorities and said those fighting the Creek Fire were facing multiple difficulties.

“Firefighters are challenged by high winds, poor access and steep, rugged terrain,” officials said in a notice Thursday.

To the southwest, the Skirball Fire’s continued impact could be seen traveling down Interstate 405, the famously congested roadway shut down by the flames a day earlier. Mountains to the east of the 405 that had been swathed in flame were charred, while those on the freeway’s east side were spared.

Some of those who fled as flames closed in had time to do little more than run.

“They gave us about 30 minutes to evacuate, so I just took my clothes,” said Monica Campo, 27, who lives in the Sylmar area. “My sister left and was complaining that she didn’t even take underwear.”

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Berman reported from Washington. Noah Smith in Los Angeles; Soo Youn in Ventura, Calif.; and Travis Andrews, J. Freedom du Lac, Jason Samenow and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.

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