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Near Ojai, concern about the canyon dwellers who stayed behind

Jayson Kaufman is one of about 20 residents of Matilija Canyon, a remote box Canyon north of Ojai, who refused to evacuate Thursday. (Louis Sahagun)
Jayson Kaufman is one of about 20 residents of Matilija Canyon, a remote box Canyon north of Ojai, who refused to evacuate Thursday. (Louis Sahagun)

Even as fiery tornadoes of flames began climbing the slopes of the remote box canyon he calls home Thursday morning, Jayson Kaufman figured he still had plenty of time to pack his valuables and head down mountain to Ojai.

To the chagrin of Ventura County sheriff’s deputies who issued a mandatory evacuation order the previous night, Kaufman was among 15 to 20 canyon dwellers who refused to leave their rustic cabins and geodesic domes tucked in dry brush.

“We’re monitoring the situation — and the clarity of the air — closely,” he said, eyeballing clouds of smoke filling the skies on both ends of the densely forested canyon. “This morning, the sky was super clear until about 10 a.m. Now, we’re playing it by ear.”

That kind of talk rankled authorities concerned about the status of the holdouts but unable to divert equipment and firefighters into the 5-mile-long canyon because Highway 33 north of Ojai was strewn with downed power lines, telephone poles and boulders.

It also worried other Matilija Canyon residents who had heeded the evacuation order but could not check the status of those who stayed behind because of failed communication networks.

“I left the canyon almost immediately after sheriff’s deputies banged on our door and told us to get out,” said Michael Kampman, 31, who was among a half-dozen people gathered at a roadblock down mountain, awaiting word of the status of their neighbors.

“I know several people who stayed behind,” he said.

The hazardous materials were removed from the road by Caltrans and utility crews about 10:30 a.m., just as winds kicked up and flames 20 feet high flared in the area about four miles north of downtown Ojai. With an estimated population of 60, and just one way in and out, Matilija Canyon has a reputation as a haven for fiercely independent mountain folk and survivalists.

By the time fire engines were rumbling up Highway 33, Kaufman watched as billowing clouds of red, orange and gray smoke rose from ridges on both sides of Ecotopia, a patchwork of sunflowers, vegetables and wildflowers he has managed for two years.

“It’s looking pretty bad out there,” he said. “But it’s still not time to leave.”

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