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Winds drive fire into homes

Times Staff Writers

A wildfire whipped by Santa Ana winds near Moorpark on Sunday destroyed five houses, damaged at least five other structures and threatened hundreds more as it skipped across the rolling hillsides of eastern Ventura County.

The blaze burned across 9,700 acres of parched chaparral, eucalyptus groves and grasslands that have seen increasing encroachment by suburban homes and exurban ranches.

With Santa Ana winds forecast through Wednesday, authorities said the area remains at high risk.

“We want to be optimistic, but it’s still a very dangerous situation until these winds die down,” said Capt. Barry Parker of the Ventura County Fire Department.

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Throughout the day, hundreds of residents packed up valuables as fire officials urged evacuations to escape the blaze, which began about 2:30 a.m. near Shekell and Grimes Canyon roads.

A second fire in Happy Camp Canyon began shortly after daybreak and merged with what is being called the Shekell fire.

Firefighters began battling the blaze in rough and rugged terrain in the early morning hours, Parker said, and struggled to see as smoke and debris swirled around them from burning brush and structures.

Authorities reported only one minor injury to a firefighter. It happened when a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection vehicle tipped over. But that firefighter soon rejoined the 800 others battling the blaze. Ventura County officials were expecting fresh firefighters from around the state during the evening.

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Dorann LaPerch and her 81-year-old mother, Mildred, each lost homes on a 26-acre horse ranch.

“We’re OK, but everything’s gone,” LaPerch told a pair of well-wishers who came by the Bonn-Fyre ranch to check on her.

She said she was grateful that she was able to help get her mother to safety, along with her mother’s wheelchair and medications, before the flames engulfed the ranch about 8:30 a.m. She also was relieved that the fire spared the 45 horses and other animals on the property.

As a pile of manure smoldered near a barn, friends and clients who board horses at the ranch bustled around, helping to round up dogs, water the horses and corral a steer whose pen had burned.

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LaPerch said the family has lived on their hilltop property north of downtown Moorpark since 1978, and weathered fires three years ago. This time, the family lost two houses, a motor home, two horse trailers and her late father’s classic 1976 Cadillac El Dorado convertible.

LaPerch sobbed as she surveyed the damage. She tried to put on a brave face in front of her guests, explaining that she escaped with only the sooty clothes on her back. “I guess,” she said, “a whole new wardrobe is in order.”

Fire investigators had not determined what started the Shekell fire, which at one point threatened the entire north edge of Moorpark. The 19.3-square-mile city of 36,000 is about 50 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, and has grown rapidly since being incorporated in 1983.

The wildfire was stoked by dry brush, low humidity and high winds. Santa Ana winds were clocked at a constant 40 mph, with gusts of up to 75 mph hampering the efforts of helicopters to drop fire retardant on the wildfire and frustrating firefighters on the ground.

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“In talking to the firefighters,” Parker said, “they said it was hard enough just to stand [upright], let alone to try to spray water on the fire. It was really, really bad.”

A plume of smoke and embers shut down the 118 Freeway for several hours. The fire ripped through the last standing warehouse on the old site of Egg City, once a major egg production facility with 18 million chickens.

Firefighters struggled throughout the day to protect homes.

One house was saved when “firefighters literally raked the burning shake shingles off the roof,” said Capt. Ronald Nelson of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.

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Ventura County does not have the manpower to enforce mandatory evacuation, so officials simply urged people to make their way to safety. Authorities recommended that some residents leave immediately and told others that they should seek shelter as a precaution.

The American Red Cross opened shelters at the Thousand Oaks Community Center and Royal High School in Simi Valley equipped with cots, blankets, nursing supplies and food.

All Moorpark schools will be closed today, officials said. Moorpark residents seeking information about the fire can call (805) 388-4276 or check the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department’s website for updates at www.vcsd.org.

Half a dozen fire engines lined Hogan Street in Moorpark Country Club Estates on Sunday night, preparing to do battle with flames advancing up a hillside toward the luxury homes.

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“This is as close as it’s gotten all day,” said resident Jeanette Pufahl, who decided to get out as darkness fell. She and her husband loaded three children, two pets, pictures and other essentials into a pair of SUVs in their circular driveway as they prepared to flee.

Judy Von Rueden frantically tried to coax her husband and adult son out of their Moorpark home as embers flew around their backyard. The men stayed behind, beating out sparks with shovels, squelching spot fires around the yard and hosing down the roof.

“The smoke was so thick you couldn’t see where the fire was coming from,” said Charles Von Rueden, 54, who wrapped a wet towel around his head to keep the smoke out. “You couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you, so you didn’t know what was going on. That was the scary part.”

Von Rueden and his son then helped a neighbor by splashing water from a swimming pool onto a burning shed -- while Judy Von Rueden was left to worry about their safety from a short distance away.

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“You don’t understand the chaos that went on here,” she said. “I just saw nothing but flames happening down the street, and that was scary, not knowing what was going on.... I was pretty much panicking.”

greg.griggs@latimes.com

stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

ken.weiss@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Howard Blume and Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.


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