Moorpark's Close Call Leaves Officials Looking for Lessons

Times Staff Writer

Six days after Moorpark became Ventura County's first victim in a series of devastating fires, city officials took time out to inspect the damage and review how firefighters spared so much property from destruction.

"We've been referring to this as 'the perfect storm.' It was one of those situations that was out of everybody's control," said county Fire Chief Bob Roper, who attended a special Moorpark City Council meeting Friday to give a briefing on the local portion of the blaze, known as the Simi Incident.

As one of the earlier blazes -- there were eventually 11 active fires in Southern California -- Roper said the Simi Incident began in Val Verde near Santa Clarita when flames came over Tapo Canyon "and made a beeline to an area near Moorpark College."

After the briefing, Roper and city officials took a tour of half a dozen areas that were blackened during the fires.

One stop was at the college observatory, overlooking hundreds of scorched acres north of the campus where developers want to build North Park Village, an upscale neighborhood of 1,650 dwellings, a nature preserve and a man-made lake.

"At its peak, it was burning about 1,000 acres an hour," Roper said.

Because the fire hit Moorpark first before spreading west to Somis and east to Simi Valley, firefighters had time to concentrate on just one portion before department resources were spread too thin, the chief said.

Roper referred to the department's efforts as "a bump-and-run strategy," in which fire engines would protect a structure at one location and then be dispatched elsewhere to quell another blaze.

"We had some great tacticians working on this who know the terrain and have worked on other fires here," Roper said. "We had the right people with the right skills in the right place and it all worked.... We didn't have any loss of life" in Ventura County.

"Even if I had 100 more fire engines, I don't know if we could have fought this any better," Roper added.

"They did a fantastic job. It was amazing they could protect as many homes as they did," City Manager Steven Kueny said as he walked through a scorched expanse of vacant land that another developer plans to turn into more than 550 homes.

"It looks like the landscape of the moon," said Mayor Pro Tem Keith Millhouse while touring the soot-laden hillside.

Not that there weren't problems during the blaze. Roper said conventional methods of containing the fire, which by Friday had consumed nearly 108,000 acres in several communities, weren't of much use.

"Normally, a golf course or a freeway is a great stopping point for fire," he said, "but this fire didn't even blink ... it was wind-driven."

Roper credited the hard work and dedication of more than 1,500 firefighters for keeping the damage minimal in populated areas. By midweek, only 3,044 acres had burned in Moorpark, 4,895 in Simi Valley and just 167 acres in Santa Paula.

Mayor Pat Hunter said Moorpark was still completing its damage assessment but believed only a few homes were destroyed, along with some sheds, barns and other outbuildings.

Based on Roper's briefing and another report the chief is scheduled to make at Wednesday's regular council meeting, Hunter said Moorpark will work with fire and sheriff's officials to seek ways to make the city safer in the future.

Councilwoman Janice Parvin said she wants to hold a town hall meeting to solicit suggestions on improving emergency response plans. On the fire's first day, Parvin and her husband jumped in a sheriff's patrol car to survey the scene and ended up helping to direct traffic.

Millhouse said the closure of California 23 and the Ronald Reagan Freeway last Saturday made it necessary to dispatch police to direct traffic for those attempting to leave town.

For the future, he recommended better coordination of signal lights to speed traffic flow and using public works employees or police volunteers to help with traffic control.

Millhouse also wants the council to investigate regulations regarding landscaping. In his neighborhood, he said, native plants have been allowed to grow too close to homes, in part because they are within a protected wetland area. Some environmental compromise to ensure safety might be in order, he said.

"I don't think you need 500-foot firebreaks, but having vegetation coming right up to the houses isn't smart either," he said. "Put people first, tumbleweeds second."

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