An army of more than 3,000 firefighters battled a wildfire that bore down on more than a dozen communities in Ventura and Los Angeles counties Thursday, halting the blaze just north of the 101 Freeway before it could spread toward Malibu and the Pacific Ocean.
Despite that victory, and forecasts of cooler, more humid conditions with lighter winds today, the Topanga fire remained dangerously out of control. The blaze had devoured more than 16,000 acres -- or 25 square miles -- and pushed north toward Simi Valley and the Santa Susana Pass, forcing more evacuations there.
By Thursday night, fire officials said the weather appeared to be turning their way and some residents were beginning to return to their homes.
“The winds have died down substantially, and that’s going to be a big help,” said Kurt Schaeffer, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
In the Knolls Park neighborhood on the southeastern edge of Simi Valley, some residents had fled while others stayed behind, watering their roofs as flames whipped around their homes on Black Canyon Road.
“I think we just had the make-it-or-break-it moment,” said Laura Hosking, 49, as several fixed-wing airplanes flew low over her block and doused it with red, jelly-like fire retardant. As she hosed away the red stains from her patio, firefighters roamed through her backyard trying to put out flames burning in the chaparral.
“We’ll have to have all the firemen over for a party, because what they did was amazing,” she said.
The blaze left large swaths of Ventura County and the Los Angeles Basin veiled in smoke and ash, prompting the South Coast Air Quality Management District to issue a smoke advisory.
The fire was the largest of several burning in the Southland.
Authorities evacuated the tiny San Bernardino Mountains hamlet of Angelus Oaks after a fast-moving blaze came within a few miles of it. Near Redlands, a fire started by welding equipment at a chicken farm was fully contained after charring about 1,100 acres in San Timoteo Canyon. In Burbank, a fire in the Wildwood Canyon wilderness area was nearly contained after burning about 10 acres.
When the Topanga fire erupted Wednesday amid heavy Santa Ana winds and high temperatures, it had all the earmarks of a potential catastrophe. It burned through suburban areas connected by miles of canyons filled with bone-dry brush and at various points along its way threatened hundreds of homes.
But as of Thursday night, the blaze was remarkable mostly for what it had failed to destroy: Authorities said the fire had gutted just one house, a garage and several outbuildings at the Rocketdyne plant several miles south of Simi Valley.
The huge contingent of firefighters from across the state allowed authorities to send crews to dozens of hillside cul-de-sacs to push back flames and guide seven water-dropping helicopters Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
Throughout the effort, wind direction played a key role in the fire’s progress. Through Thursday morning, firefighters focused on Oak Park, Thousand Oaks and other communities along the blaze’s southern edge. Using bulldozers to clear brush in a hastily constructed perimeter, crews stopped the blaze about a quarter-mile north of the 101 Freeway.
“That was one of our top priorities,” said Mike Bryant, incident chief for the L.A. County Fire Department. “Our primary strategic objective is to keep the fire from going over the freeway. Once it goes that way, it’s driven very, very quickly” toward Malibu.
About noon, the Santa Ana winds appeared to die down and firefighters expressed hope that they might begin to gain ground.
But a shift in the winds in the afternoon and early evening refocused the battle to the north as flames raced back toward Simi Valley and the Chatsworth area, where the blaze had begun about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.
For residents, it was a day of tense moments as sheriff’s deputies descended on neighborhoods, knocking on doors or yelling through bullhorns for people to evacuate.
The flames came within 100 feet of Norma Irvin’s home in Thousand Oaks near the eastern city limit. She packed her bags and prepared to evacuate, but firefighters were able to douse the flames. She was left pondering the name of her street.
“After we moved here, we thought, ‘Hmm, why do they call it Smokey Ridge?’ ” she said. “But by then it was too late. We were already here. Now we know.”
In Calabasas, where the fire was burning Thursday evening within yards of homes and apartments, firefighters were ordering the evacuation of the Malibu Canyon Apartments, a sprawling complex in a neighborhood north of the 101. As Ron Kay fled, he paused to look over his shoulder at a wall of flames burning in the hillsides above him. It was the second time that day he and his cat, Saribi, had been evacuated, he said.
In Bell Canyon, a gated community of luxury homes southwest of Chatsworth, residents had fled amid chaos Wednesday night. “The sky was lit up all red, you could feel the heat of the fire, and animals were running across the road to try to get away from the flames -- raccoons, coyotes,” said resident Emily Goldfield.
By Thursday afternoon, many had returned to retrieve valuables they had left behind. A sign had been posted at the community’s main gate warning: “Bell Canyon Is Not Safe. Wind Is Shifting. Enter at Own Risk.”
All along the roads leading into the canyon, residents lugged tote bags and suitcases to their vehicles, while fire engines barreled past and massive columns of smoke clouded the skies. Helicopters dumped muddy water onto the flames.
“We saved a bunch of houses out there,” said Los Angeles city Fire Capt. Nick Ferrari. “We’ve been gearing up for this fire for years. Well, it finally came.”
Dee Margolis, 41, and her husband, Jeff, 47, were busy carrying belongings out of their home and loading them into their black Ford Expedition. Among those treasured items were their son’s Willie Mays autographed baseball, Dee Margolis’ wedding dress and several photo albums.
Items they left behind included a Mercedes-Benz and a Kobe Bryant basketball jersey. “Two years ago I would have taken it,” Jeff Margolis said.
In addition to Bell Canyon, mandatory evacuations were ordered for Box Canyon, Lake Manor, Woolsey Canyon and along Chesebro and Kanan roads near the 101. Voluntary evacuation advisories were given for parts of Malibu Canyon, Agoura Hills, Lindero Canyon, Hidden Hills, Malibou Lake and Mountain View Estates.
In the San Bernardino Mountains, officials similarly gave the order to evacuate Angelus Oaks after the fire there crossed a ridge line about three miles outside of the community town.
“We wanted to give residents a safe amount of time to get out before we had to tell them to run, run, run,” said John Miller, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.
About 3,000 fire personnel and 200 engines from across the state helped fight the blaze. Although the numbers were large for one brush fire, Mike Bryant said, the unpredictable nature of the blaze and the fact that it was so close to a heavily populated area justified the resources. “We seem to have a 100-year disaster every three years,” he said.
On one street in Oak Park, 15-year-old Chris Severn used a digital video camera to photograph helicopter water-drops and the advancing flames Thursday afternoon.
Severn, a sophomore at Oak Park High School, narrated his report as he went.
“We’ve never been in this situation before,” he said into his camera, as he panned down the street. “We have fire in our backyards. There are helicopters behind our house swooping up over our roof. “
Severn said his family had relatives in Georgia who were watching the drama on cable TV. “They’re calling us every two minutes,” he said. “We’re packed and ready to go. If the fire gets closer, I’ll go. I’m not one of those die-hard filmmakers.”
Times staff writers Fred Alvarez, Hector Becerra, Jia-Rui Chong, Gregory W. Griggs, Daryl Kelley, Eric Malnic, Monte Morin, Jennifer Oldham, Ashley Powers and Lance Pugmire contributed to this report.