When Sonja Heritage walked inside a small meeting room at the second floor of the Marriott Hotel in Ventura, nearly 20 dogs in their kennels started wagging their tails and barking in excitement.
Heritage is the head canine trainer at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, one of the only nonprofits in the nation that takes shelter dogs and trains them in disaster relief search and rescue missions and provides them free of charge to handlers at fire departments and other first response agencies, said spokeswoman Denise Sanders.
The organization has trained 184 dogs on its property in Wheeler Canyon Road in Santa Paula, Sanders said. Their dogs have assisted in search and rescue missions at ground zero after 9/11, the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and most recently in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
What caused the Lilac fire in San Diego County? Investigators are trying to figure that out.
The fire began about 11:15 a.m. Thursday near the entrance to a mobile home park, off Old Highway 395 about a mile south of State Route 76 and a few hundred feet west of southbound Interstate 15, which runs parallel to the highway.
The fire was reported by motorists while still quite small, according to initial accounts.
“The Three Musketeers” of French literary fame fought corruption with rapiers, but the newly nicknamed Three Musketeers of Bonsall fought off a raging firestorm Thursday night with little more than a pair of expired fire hoses.
Neighbors Cathy Orchard and Don Philippbar and his stepson, Todd Smith, ignored evacuation orders and stayed to defend their homes and several others on Redondo Drive, just south of Highway 76. By dawn Friday, they had rescued five houses that were all aflame at many points during the long, windy night.
“It was pretty scary for a while there. You talk about firestorms — this was definitely one,” said Philippbar, 60, a self-employed cabinet-maker. “It was a little freaky inside it — kind of like a tornado passing right over you.”
With the Thomas fire in Ventura County 10% contained Friday night, authorities announced they have lifted evacuation orders for parts of the Ojai Valley.
The area includes territory within the city limits, Creek Road, Meiners Oaks from Rice Road east, and unincorporated areas east of the city to Reeves Road, according to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.
Areas that remain under evacuation include unincorporated areas west of Rice Road, plus Highway 33 north of Fairview Drive and Highway 150 east of Reeves Road.
Fire officials said they made good progress Friday due to weakening of the Santa Ana winds. Bill Murphy, public information officer with Cal Fire, said firefighters had a successful day fighting flames on the southern edge toward the coast as well as in parts of Ojai thanks to favorable wind patterns, diminished Santa Anas and crews improving fire lines they had established.
By Friday evening, the Thomas fire had burned 143,000 acres and was at 10% containment. As a result, Murphy said, evacuation orders for most of Ventura and Santa Paula were lifted. Firefighters continued to encounter difficulty on the east side of the fire above Fillmore.
Firefighters used helicopters to drop water in that area to try to contain the blaze. Firefighters also made progress on Highway 33 and U.S. 101 on the west side of the fire. They said activity in that area has decreased from previous days.
Dry Santa Ana winds will roar back to life in San Diego County over the weekend, and some of the strongest gusts could hit the area of the Lilac fire, according to the National Weather Service.
“The winds will begin to gradually pick up on Saturday afternoon, mostly in the East County foothills, from Julian to Alpine,” said Alex Tardy, a weather service forecaster.
“By sunrise Sunday, the winds could be gusting 55 to 65 mph in the foothills. Then the winds will spread out. It looks like they’ll gust 20, 30 and maybe 40 mph where the Lilac fire is. And some of the winds will spread all the way to the coast.”