Ojai officials said it was a "miracle" that fierce Santa Ana winds had subsided on Thursday as firefighters battled wildfires that have encircled the mountain community and continued to burn largely untamed on surrounding ridgelines.
"The fire burned hard overnight on slopes about four miles north of town," Rudy Livingston, Ojai's finance director, said. "But fire crews with bulldozers and fire engines … were able to reduce fuel, calm the flames and keep them from coming downhill into town."
"It was truly a miracle that the predicted fierce winds failed to materialize — we were waiting for them, but they didn't come," he said. "All I can say is, 'Thank God.' If they had come, it would have been very ugly here."
On Wednesday night, the Thomas fire raced westward along mountains north of town, forming an eerie bright orange line of flames several miles long. Just to the south of the city limits, fire crews were attacking smoldering hot spots with water and hand tools.
Fire authorities expanded mandatory evacuation zones in the eastern Ojai Valley during the night and evacuated Ojai Valley Community Hospital.
Weather conditions favored the firefighters Thursday, with winds of 8 to 18 miles per hour, and the city's core remained under voluntary evacuation orders Thursday morning.
Bill Murphy, a public information officer with Cal Fire, said that over night and into Thursday morning the fire burned north of Ojai, moving northwest.
"Essentially for Ojai, the fire has skirted both sides of the community," Murphy said. Fire continues to burn west of Highway 33 near Carpinteria, and although the wind wasn't creating as much of a challenge, the fuel bed and hilly terrain were, Murphy said.
"The winds that were forecast for last night — it was windy on the ridge tops, the wind didn't surface quite as much down low," Murphy said. "Most of the fire behavior that was observed last night was as a result of topography and fuel conditions. The area to the north and west of the community of Ojai, that fuel bed is very, very old, very dense. The fire activity observed last night was largely independent of wind, and it was burning extremely active."
On the outskirts of Ojai, the scene was grim.
Along Highway 33, about three miles north of Ojai, some residents who fled late Wednesday returned Thursday morning to find their homes in ruins. One relative of a homeowner, who declined to be identified, said her mother-in-law was ordered to leave her three-bedroom home off Camino Cielo and the Maricopa Highway.
She returned to find a heap of smoldering rubble. Her family said they were working to restore a water pump so that they could douse hot spots and soak the embers. Other homes along the highway were spared. A ranch atop a ridge at Cozy Ojai Road stood virtually untouched, with a yellow Post-It note left on the front door for firefighters and first responders: "We evacuated!"
10 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Cal Fire public information officer Bill Murphy and details about damage to homes on Highway 33.