A wind-whipped fire destroyed the earthquake-damaged Sears Outlet building here Monday, one of six fires that flared in the space of eight hours and kept Ventura County fire crews busy.
More than 120 firefighters, aided by four water-dropping helicopters and two Super Scooper airplanes, battled a 20-acre brush fire that blackened a rugged canyon at Simi Valley's east end.
Firefighting crews also snuffed out a five-acre brush fire in Piru, a barn fire and a tree fire in Moorpark and a pile of burning manure near Somis.
"This has been one of the busiest mornings we've had in a long time," said Sandi Wells, spokeswoman for the Ventura County Fire Department. "Within [a few] hours, we had two structure fires--one that went to three alarms--and two brush fires, one very significant. Everything happened at once."
It all began just after 5 a.m.
Almost simultaneously, flames reared up inside the abandoned Sears Outlet store in Simi Valley and swept across a brushy hillside in Piru. Both calls came in at 5:12 a.m., fire officials said.
The Piru fire burned harmlessly over uninhabited grasslands for about two hours before county firefighters with hand tools, hoses and bulldozers could bring it under control. Arson investigator Peter Cronk said that someone had deliberately set the fire near Warring Park and made a quick getaway.
Meanwhile, the Sears Outlet fire destroyed a building that has sat broken and vacant for more than 21 months since it was shaken by the Northridge earthquake.
And that, city officials said, may force the building's owner to raze the eyesore, which nearby merchants say has been hampering their business.
Lawrence Morse, one of the building's owners, has said he could not afford to raze or repair the building until he signed a deal with a new tenant who could bankroll it.
Morse could not be reached Monday for comment.
But Assistant City Manager Don Penman said the city of Simi Valley will keep pushing Morse and his partners to install a viable business in place of the ruined building because it is hurting commerce for neighboring merchants.
Penman said that Monday's fire has pushed the building toward its more likely fate--demolition. The city has already taken the owners to court seeking to force them to repair or raze the building.
"We feel that the building needs to be demolished," Penman said. "It's now very questionable whether the owners can rehabilitate it."
Arson investigator Dave Chovanec determined Monday afternoon that the fire was made by human hand--but he could not tell whether flames were ignited by transients keeping warm or by a firebug out for destruction.
Chovanec said he plans today to bring in a dog trained to sniff out gasoline and other substances used by arsonists.
Once the Sears building caught fire, he said, it burned hot and fast. By the time firefighters arrived a few minutes later, the building was completely engulfed, he said.
"There was so much roofing material--it's been roofed over 15 to 20 times. You've got all that tar, and once [fire] gets up in there it's hard to stop," Chovanec said.
But strong southwesterly winds forced the flames back into the store and kept them from spreading to neighboring businesses. The fire was knocked down by 6:28 a.m., Wells said.
Just over an hour later, the day's biggest blaze flared up in a rugged canyon east of Simi Valley in the brisk, dry wind.
County arson investigator Peter Cronk said that something thrown from a car--he is unsure whether it was a cigarette butt or some other form of spark--probably caused that fire.
Flames roared across the hills south of Rocky Peak, throwing a pillar of smoke hundreds of feet into the air over the nearby Simi Valley Freeway.
The spectacle quickly snarled rush-hour traffic on the freeway, as did the decision by police to close another major commuting route--Santa Susana Pass Road--when it was briefly threatened by the fire.
Hand crews and engine companies from Ventura and Los Angeles counties, the city of Los Angeles and the California Department of Forestry swarmed over the rocky slopes.
Firefighters hosed down blazing brush, and shovel-wielding forestry workers dug firebreaks to cut off fuel to the fire.
Meanwhile, helicopters and two Super Scooper airplanes on loan from Los Angeles County took turns swooping low overhead, dropping torrents of water onto the flames.
It took firefighters nearly 3 1/2 hours to extinguish that blaze, but not before the first of three more fires began:
A rubbish fire beside a barn in the Happy Camp area of Moorpark was reported at 9:49 a.m.; a tree fire at the base of Grimes Canyon in Moorpark was reported at 1:17 p.m., as was a smoldering manure fire on California 118 between Moorpark and Somis just seven minutes later.
Firefighters quickly put out all three.