Just hours after firefighters declared it was fully contained, the smoldering wildfire that started last week in Thousand Oaks came to life again Tuesday, sending 60-foot-high flames roaring down coastal mountains and around a beachfront condo complex in the southernmost tip of Ventura County.
The flare-up came as Ventura County Fire Chief George E. Lund was telling the Board of Supervisors that property damage in the fire topped $12 million--a figure almost twice as high as previous estimates--and county firefighting costs totaled $9 million.
The wind-driven rebirth of the 8-day-old, 42,644-acre fire near the Los Angeles County line came late in the morning, just as firefighters were being dispatched to a huge new blaze across the Los Angeles County line in Topanga Canyon near Malibu.
Fearing the two fires could mesh and destroy everything between them, Ventura County commanders ordered up reserves and sent dozens of strike teams to the Pacific Coast Highway to battle the new offshoot of the Green Meadow fire as it threatened more than a dozen coastal homes in Ventura County.
After sending home more than half the firefighters from the Thousand Oaks command post by Monday, officials there tore down a "Check Out" sign and replaced it with a "Check In" sign.
By nightfall, the offshoot fire had grown to more than 750 acres, but Lund predicted it could be surrounded with firebreaks overnight.
"Overall, things are looking much better for Ventura County," said Lund. "From what I'm told, I believe they'll get around it tonight. Our chief there is pretty optimistic."
Embers had rekindled in the 45 m.p.h. wind gusts and spread quickly from spot blazes to a mile-wide line of crackling flame that leaped over canyons and threatened beachfront homes along the Pacific Coast Highway.
The fire destroyed brush in Leo Carillo State Park in Los Angeles County and surrounded the nearby Malibu Bay Club, a condominium complex across the county line in Ventura County on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Flames jumped Pacific Coast Highway about 2 p.m. Tuesday just west of the Ventura County line.
Jack Kirchner, a state parks ranger, was doing his best to protect Leo Carillo State Beach when the wind shifted and sent flames toward his Ventura County home half a mile away.
By the time he arrived, flames had raced down both sides of his property and reached the ocean. Then the fire worked its way back up a slope and into his back yard. Firefighters were already working to save the house, spraying water over the brush between his back yard and the beach.
"A 60-foot wall of flames was reaching right over the house," said Kirchner, who had lived in the home with his fiancee and four children for only about two months.
Kirchner's fiancee had left to pick up the children at school about half an hour before the fire surrounded the house on all sides. "If the firefighters would not have been here I would have lost everything."
Next door, residents of the Malibu Bay Club sprayed water from garden hoses on fires that crept right to the edge of the cliff-side condominium complex.
"It roared right through here," said condo owner Sean Ryan, still in disbelief that flames had jumped the four-lane coastal highway. "Now we're just trying to save our homes."
After preparing to evacuate last week because fire threatened her hillside home, Tongareva Street resident Pamela Campbell said she had just unpacked all her belongings.
But when fire moved along the ridge above the house, Campbell repacked her most cherished possessions and readied for a quick exit.
"The smoke was so bad. It was just billowing over this way," said Campbell, her blue Volvo loaded down with caged cats and rabbits. "I thought it was over."
By 5 p.m., the fire threat to Ventura County had eased. Wisps of white smoke still rose from the hillsides, but many fire crews that had been working in Ventura County were sent to Topanga Canyon and Malibu to fight the blaze there.
Ventura County Assistant Fire Chief Dave Festerling said crews were still working in the hillsides above Pacific Coast Highway to shore up a fire line that flames had crossed earlier Tuesday afternoon.
"Given this fire and the wind, we knew this blaze had real great potential," he said of the entire Green Meadow fire, as hillsides at Leo Carillo glowed orange around him. "We're trying to hold it right here at PCH."
"I've spoken to officials to the south of here and we are placing the Topanga-Malibu fire as the top priority" in Southern California, Lund said. The Riverside County fire is ranked second priority by commanders around the region, and the Green Meadow holds third place, he said.
Gov. Pete Wilson had decreed Monday that firefighters be allowed to vote by provisional ballot at their command posts.
Firefighters cast ballots at several posts around Ventura County, many anxious to support Prop. 172. That measure keeps in place a soon-to-expire half-cent sales tax to support public safety.
"Maybe these fires will impress upon people that they need more firefighting help," said Capt. Chuck McDonald, a California Department of Forestry firefighter from Shasta County. "I was worried that I wasn't going to get a chance to vote."
About 80 people voted before 11 a.m., said Wayne Pero, National Parks Service official assigned to monitor the polls.
Pero said that a number of firefighters had planned to rest in the morning and wait to vote until the afternoon. But the new fire broke out, and they were sent back to work before they had a chance to cast their ballots.
Fire commanders said they worried that the two blazes could join, catching populated canon communities between them.
"If the winds develop as they are predicted to, it could push the two fires together," said Alan Campbell, spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department. "That would be a worst-case scenario."
Ventura County forecasters predicted that the Santa Anas would die down by sunset Tuesday and be replaced by a weak sea breeze along the coast, but ridge tops in the Thousand Oaks area would still have a wind from the north and northeast gusting to 35 m.p.h. And Santa Anas would continue inland, lessening after 8 p.m.
Wednesday morning winds are predicted to be light and variable, switching to a down-canyon flow, according to the forecast by the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District.
During the morning, fire crews set ablaze islands of brush totaling 25 to 50 acres at the heart of the Green Meadow site near Thousand Oaks. At least once, they had to stamp out fresh fires east of Mulholland Highway that were spawned by sparks carried by the wind.
As hot desert winds breathed new life into the blaze and fed the Topanga fire, Chief Lund addressed the county Board of Supervisors.
Lund told supervisors that the combined cost of fighting the Green Meadow and Steckel fires has reached $9 million.
Property damage costs from the Green Meadow fire alone have topped $12 million and are expected to rise, Lund said.
He said crews will make a detailed assessment of the property loss in the next week.
About 53 houses and mobile homes were lost in the Green Meadow fire, along with 70 outbuildings. One barn was lost in the Steckel fire between Santa Paula and Ventura, which charred 26,500 acres of brush before 1,344 firefighters stopped it Monday.
Lund said cost and damage estimates were not available for the 1,500-acre Rocky Peak fire between Simi Valley and Chatsworth and the Wheel fire near Ojai because they were fought mainly by firefighters from Los Angeles County and the California Department of Forestry.
Lund said that while firefighters were battling the four large Ventura County wildfires last week, arsonists started at least six smaller brush fires that were extinguished before getting out of control.
While praising all firefighters, Lund said that those stationed in the Santa Monica Mountains near the Pacific Coast Highway deserved special attention.
"Firefighting efforts at the time that fire was moving toward the ocean were probably some of the most heroic we've seen in our careers," he said. "The heroism was from all agencies involved."
Federal emergency aid officials said that a claims center for disaster aid will be kept open through Friday night.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will keep operating its claims center at the Sheriff's Training Academy, 425 Durley Ave. in Camarillo, said John Treanor, a FEMA spokesman. The center will be open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily until Friday, he said.
Times correspondents Julie Fields and Matthew Mosk and photographer Alan Hagman contributed to this report.