Multiple fires are raging in Southern California. A series of Santa Ana wind-driven wildfires have destroyed hundreds of structures, forced thousands to flee and smothered the region with smoke in what officials predicted would be a pitched battle for days.
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The sight of firetrucks rolling past Ojai boutiques and wine-tasting rooms under a heavy pall of smoke made it impossible for officials to give a satisfying response to the big question on everyone’s minds Wednesday morning: Is the town going to burn down?
“I’ve been telling people, ‘If you can get your loved ones and valuables to a safe place, you should,’” said Ojai City Manager Steve McClary. “That’s a tough answer to give. I wish I could be more specific. But this is no time for false promises.”
Eastern portions of the mountain community of about 20,000 were under mandatory evacuation orders. Downtown residents and shop owners, though, faced voluntary evacuation, and worried that a shift in the wind could drive wildfires on surrounding ridgelines farther south and into town.
On Wednesday, signs of Christmas along downtown Ojai’s 19th-century-style promenades provided a moody contrast to the “closed” signs dangling from the doors of restaurants, shops and bed-and-breakfast inns.
Ojai authorities hoped to reduce anxiety by handing out flyers offering “current information” hotline numbers and computer links. But communications systems were spotty, at best, in the community where the only ways in and out were two-lane country roads.
On Wednesday morning, Doug LaBarre, 70, was among the many residents who bellied up to the counter of a downtown fire station with an urgent question for Capt. Paul Berrera.
“The city itself is not threatened, right?” LBarre said. “My 95-year-old father lives in my guesthouse. So are we safe?”
“All I can tell you,” Berrera said with a sympathetic smile, “is this: To ensure your father’s safety, prepare to leave if necessary.”