Fireworks Spark 300-Acre Blaze

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The biggest brush fire of the season scorched nearly 300 acres in eastern Ventura County on Friday, unnerving residents as it burned near hillside homes in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley.

The fire began about 1 p.m. near the upscale Lang Ranch neighborhood of Thousand Oaks. Fanned by light winds, the fire burned northeast across dry grassland toward the Wood Ranch development in Simi Valley.

There were no reports of evacuations or serious injuries. Fire officials said the blaze was 80% contained by 9:30 p.m.

"It could have been worse given the vegetation and the weather, said Joe Luna, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department. "If the winds had been stronger, it could have been a different outcome altogether."

The fire was started by two boys playing with fireworks, Luna said. No information on the youths was released but Luna said arson investigators and sheriff's deputies questioned the pair Friday night and were considering various penalties.

The department deployed 21 engines, two bulldozers, four helicopters and two air tankers to fight the blaze. About 250 firefighters and California Department of Forestry crew members aided in the effort.

With the fire season 2 weeks old, Luna said fire crews are bracing for next week's Fourth of July holiday because of concerns that fireworks will touch off a fire in the tinder-dry county.

"We still have the most dangerous holiday ahead of us," Luna said.

Although the fire did not threaten homes, it frightened residents in the hilly neighborhood in eastern Thousand Oaks where the blaze began.

Lang Ranch homeowner Ralph Netz, 46, left work and sped home after his wife called his office in Calabasas to report the hills around their house were in flames.

"I saw the smoke when I was leaving the office," Netz said. "I envisioned it burning all up around my house. But thankfully the wind was blowing the other way."

At the far end of Indian Ridge Circle in Lang Ranch, nervous residents watched as 6-foot-high flames came within 30 feet of their homes. In the backyard of one home, fire crews walked in single file, hacking at dry brush with shovels and pitchforks in an effort to stop the advancing flames.

As he watched the workers make their way through his backyard, the homeowner, who declined to give his name, said, "There's nothing we can really do. We feel really bad about what this is doing to the wildlife. That's why we moved up here."

As he spoke, the winds began to shift and fire crews responded as flames began moving steadily toward Simi Valley.

Several firefighters stood on a ridge watching as flames, topped by a massive plume of black smoke, slowly advanced on a steep, brush-heavy ridge and beyond to the Wood Ranch area.

"It's really bad over there," said Capt. Chad Cook of the county Fire Department's Fillmore station. "Right now, these homes are safe, but we're not sure about Simi Valley."

As she stood in front of her home, and with a clear view of the flames, Lori Keipper talked to her husband on a cell phone and reassured him their house would survive the fire.

When her family moved to Thousand Oaks from Atlanta three years ago, she said, they were aware that fire danger came with the pleasant weather and hillside views.

"We left tornadoes behind in Atlanta. One even hit our house," Keipper said. "And I have all the confidence in the world in these firefighters. They have done this before."

A few blocks away, where Lang Ranch Parkway ends with a spectacular view of the Santa Monica Mountains, a party atmosphere was evident as residents jostled for the best camera angle to photograph the nearby flames.

Two fixed-wing planes swooped low above the homes and the nearby burning ridge. The planes then dumped a red chemical that turned the brown smoke to white, bringing cheers from the crowd.

"What comes to mind when I watch this is the effort being made to keep our homes safe," said Lee Hotaling, who watched the firefighting effort from his front porch. "It's wonderful to see our taxes in motion."

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Times staff writer Tina Dirmann contributed to this story.

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