The reports started coming in a little after 9 p.m. Monday. A fire had erupted amid the oaks and scrub in the hills north of Santa Paula.
Located on the southern edge of the Sespe Wilderness, the blaze was named the Thomas fire for its proximity to Thomas Aquinas College. Within hours — its embers driven westward on the gusts of the Santa Ana winds — it had reached Ventura, a dozen miles away.
Mark Patterson, 58, and his wife, Linda, 59, woke to the sound of pounding on their front door. It was 1:15 a.m. No one was there, and at first they thought it was a prank. But then they could see flames leaping over the ridgeline to the north. Gathering with neighbors in the street, they kept vigil, and by 4 that morning, the hill was consumed.
Standing in their driveway, feeling the heat of the flames, they knew they had to evacuate. But first they drove to the church where Patterson is the lead pastor. It was safe, but there were more fires downtown, and the enormous apartment complex — Hawaiian Village, known for its views over the city to the ocean — was engulfed in flames.
“We’ve lived in Ventura for 19 years,” Patterson said. “We’ve had a couple fires, but nothing like this.”
The fire had taken Foothill Road as its path into the city. First burning through the dry leaves of the outlying avocado groves, it found new fuel in the homes built north of the 101 Freeway. Its glow brightened the night sky.
Jeff Jacobson and his daughters, Emma, 20, and Olivia, 16, began evacuating before midnight. Their single-story, ranch-style home on Island View Drive — its backyard with coastal views, the Channel Islands in the distance — was threatened.
Jacobson had considered staying, putting up a fight. He looked at his two grand pianos, one a prized 1937 Mason and Hamlin; they could be lost, he thought. But his daughters were insistent.
“Let’s leave,” they said. “Let’s leave.”
He could not ignore them. They loaded up a trailer and headed to the evacuation center at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
In the past, wildfires have largely skirted downtown Ventura, burning through the wildlands that surround the smaller communities of Ojai and Santa Paula. But Monday night was different.
Power outages had left more than 260,000 residents in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties without power. Initial alerts from the Ventura County Fire Department reported nearly 31,000 acres consumed and 150 structures destroyed.
Firefighters set up their command post at the fairgrounds and began planning their offensive, but first they had to wait for daybreak.
To the east, stories were coming in: of neighbors in Camarillo banding together with garden hoses and spray nozzles to battle the onslaught of sparks; of a mother in Santa Paula who raced back through a police line to grab her daughter’s guitar (“It’s all she wanted”); of the crowds who had gathered to watch the black smoke and flames creep along a dry ridge near dozens of homes.
Winds ripped through bougainvillea, sending flames a hundred feet high into the sky. Some homes were spared, others destroyed, trees and chaparral left blackened and smoldering.
The land, said one resident, had not seen a fire in more than three decades, leaving this conflagration to eat its way through years of brush and debris.
At first light — the sky gray with smoke and ash — Scott Quirarte, a public information officer for the Ventura County Fire Department, delivered the news: miles of fire line and the frustration of having to wait until dawn to start full operations.
At 6 a.m., Heather Rhoades, 24, and her boyfriend Tyler Miller, 29, were evacuating Oak View with their family. They were driving down Highway 33 into Ventura, and flames covered the hillsides adjacent to highway. It was terrifying, Miller said, “like driving through the gates of hell.”
“All I saw was Ventura engulfed in flames,” Rhoades added. “All my friends’ houses were burning down. It was just scary.”
Heading the other direction were David Demshki and his wife, Christy Harris, who live in Oxnard and needed to rescue their three horses in Oak View.
Making that drive, Demshki said, “felt like you were going into fire.” The hills were “boiling” with flames and the sky glowed orange.
Just east of Highway 33 in Ventura, patients had been evacuated from Vista del Mar Hospital, an acute psychiatric facility, above downtown. Two buildings were destroyed, the facility left smoldering under the smoky sky.
Returning to Island View Drive, Jeff Jacobson watched flames flick out of his still-burning home. He could see one of two pianos, broken and charred, and he tried to hold back the tears as the memories flooded back, the treasured notes of Emma’s playing.
“So many things that are not replaceable, I don’t even know where to start,” Jacobson said.
By 8 a.m., winds were gusting to 40 mph and on the distant ridges, peaking at nearly 70. The ocean was mottled with whitecaps. More than 1,000 firefighters were on the scene, and by 10:30 Gov. Jerry Brown had declared an emergency.
By some estimates, nearly a quarter of Ventura — 27,000 people — had been evacuated. Mansions off Foothill Road were engulfed in flames. The city was smudged by smoke, palm trees consumed by flames and Christmas decorations — including one inflatable snowman — darkened by soot.
On Main Street, power had been restored at Pete’s Breakfast House, where Gilberto Amaya went to work at the grill. As he scrambled eggs, owner Lindsay Timpson began making breakfast burritos — 800, she guessed — that her daughter would deliver to the firefighters on the hillsides above town.
Mary Tedesco and her husband, Steve, were helping. They got out of their home just in time to save their three dogs, but they lost two Harley-Davidsons and the irreplaceable mementos of their family: an heirloom cookbook and a father’s sergeant badge from World War II.
“I just try very hard not to let myself break down,” Mary Tedesco said. “You gotta stay strong.”
By early afternoon, the fire was at 45,500 acres. By late evening, it was more than 55,000 acres.
“We anticipate that number to grow,” said Capt. Stan Ziegler of the Ventura County Fire Department.
At the fairgrounds evacuation center, south of the 101, Robin Andersen was walking her dogs. After caravanning out of their neighborhood with her neighbors, the 62-year-old spent the night in her car along with her three dogs and two cats.
The city, she said, “looked like Armageddon.”
“I sat facing the fires, and it was like watching Rome burn,” Andersen said. “I cried. I love this city so much and it was overcome by flames.”
Greg Lindfors dressed up as Santa for the children who had been evacuated.
“I can’t help in the way firemen or the Red Cross does, but I can do this,” Lindfors said.
Most of the children he spoke with told him about the Christmas toys they wanted, he said. One boy just wanted a long hug.
Times staff writers Thomas Curwen, Sonali Kohli, Laura J. Nelson and Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.