Firefighter Mike Stout was working another small blaze on Labor Day when the Day fire began as a few wisps of smoke in the Los Padres National Forest.
He was there 11 days later when the fast-growing Ventura County blaze swept over his U.S. Forest Service base station near Pyramid Lake and roared east.
And on Wednesday, the 24th day of what has become one of the biggest and longest-burning brush fires in California history, Stout was still among the more than 4,200 firefighters on the lines.
“Gotta run!” he said, stuffing some water and a few granola bars into his backpack before jumping into a helicopter that took him up to the rugged terrain where the fight is being waged.
Like a boxer skipping around the ring, the Day fire has been a testy foe, firefighters say, threatening communities on one side of the sprawling Los Padres National Forest for a few days before retreating and taking a shot on the other side.
“You can’t ever relax,” said helicopter pilot Maurice Messersmith. “All it takes is a shift in the winds and the fight is on again.”
At the tent cities that have sprouted to give exhausted crews a place to eat and sleep, firefighters have adopted their own nickname for the stubborn blaze: the Day-after-day fire.
“It’s like that movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” said Mike Morrison, a Carpinteria firefighter and paramedic who wasn’t sure if it was his eighth or ninth day at a temporary heliport in Upper Ojai. “You wake up and every day is like the last.”
Despite charring more than 159,000 acres, the Day fire has burned only two mobile homes and three outbuildings. There have been no reported deaths or serious injuries, but the cost of fighting the blaze has topped $53 million.
And the fire has been frustratingly unpredictable. As it has done periodically, the blaze jumped fire lines this week and shot north toward about 500 homes in Lockwood Valley.
Resident Tom Warner, 50, was lucky. He lost only two barns; his mother, Constance, lost her home.
As 100-foot-high flames danced on a ridge in the distance Wednesday afternoon, Warner surveyed the damage to his 385-acre property, which looked like a moonscape.
The day before, the heavy equipment contractor hopped on his dozer and assisted a strike team of Santa Barbara County firefighters as they tried desperately to reroute the wind-driven fire away from his house.
“The Forest Service lit a backfire the night before and it backfired on them,” Warner said. “The winds changed and ... blew it right through.”
To protect his house, firefighters doused it with foam.
“The strike team stayed with us,” said Warner, whose family has lived in Lockwood Valley since the 1950s. Fire commanders “told them to leave, but they never left.”
Warner’s mother lost her double-wide mobile home a quarter-mile away. He said it was the second time she had lost a home to a fire; the first time was in 1958.
“It pretty much looks like a piece of clay with lots of toothpicks stuck in it,” he said of the gutted structure. “The washer-dryer and the fridge are the only things recognizable.”
Aided by cooler nighttime temperatures, firefighters were able to get the flames back under control Wednesday, fire officials said. Crews were also reestablishing containment lines at Lockwood Valley Road.
On the fire’s western edge, other teams were shoring up fire breaks and tamping out the smoldering remains of the fire that had threatened Ojai and Santa Paula over the weekend.
“Our strategy is to take advantage of the weather by cutting fire lines to prevent further spread along the western and northern edges,” said Dave Kerr, a fire management officer for the Los Padres National Forest. “The idea is to hopefully bring the two sides together along Lockwood Valley Road.”
With the fire 41% contained, Kerr would not predict when the blaze -- the fifth-largest wildfire on record in California -- would be fully contained.
“I’m not going to even go there, because this fire has been so crazy,” he said.
Fire officers knew from the start that the blaze would be tough to put out because of its location in a remote area of the Sespe Wilderness accessible only by foot. It was sparked by someone burning trash.
Concerned about the rugged mountain terrain, with no roads for fire engines, dispatchers at the Angeles National Forest Emergency Communications Center requested seven retardant-dropping air tankers and an equal number of helicopters after the first report of smoke Sept. 4, said Kathy Good, a Los Padres National Forest spokeswoman.
But only three of each aircraft were available, she said. They dropped 20,000 gallons of fire retardant the first day before it grew too dark to continue flying, Good said.
Despite their efforts, the fire quickly spread.
At 120 acres when it was reported just before 2 p.m., the Day fire had grown to 600 acres by nightfall. Ground crews were unable to go in for several days because of the terrain, Good said.
“Firefighter lives would have been in jeopardy,” she said. “There was no safe or effective way for the crew to begin to construct a fire line.”
During the next week, the fire spread in all directions, growing to more than 16,000 acres.
About 1,400 firefighters joined the fight, working feverishly to keep it from jumping Interstate 5 and burning east into the Angeles National Forest. For several days, the fire remained at 35,000 acres and crews were making progress in cutting a barrier around it.
But then Santa Ana wind gusts doubled the size of the blaze overnight, sending a shower of smoke and ash over Ojai. No structures were damaged, but more crews were called in to begin protecting homes.
Commanders requested a privately operated supertanker to join the fight. The DC-10 jet had once ferried tourists to Hawaii but has been modified to spew 12,000 gallons of pink retardant over a distance of half a mile. Firefighters were uniformly impressed.
“I never thought I’d see the day when a jetliner dumped stuff on a forest fire,” Stout said. “That’s a lot of foam.”
Taking advantage of light winds and high humidity, firefighters made significant progress at the western edge of the blaze earlier this week and believed the worst had passed. But then Tuesday the winds kicked up again and flames jumped fire lines in Lockwood Valley and headed north.
When the blaze first broke out, wildfires were still raging in Montana, Idaho and other timber-heavy states, said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Those have since been extinguished with the arrival of snow and rain, making the Day fire the top priority in the nation, she said.
“The rest of the country is looking good, and we’re all ready for a nap,” she said of the fire center, which helps dispatch federal firefighting crews and equipment. “But we won’t leave until we take care of California.”
Times staff writer Ashraf Khalil and photographer Stephen Osman contributed to this report.
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A wildfire’s rage
Since it started as a brush fire on Labor Day, the Day fire has burned its way up the list of largest fires in state history. On Wednesday, it was 42% contained. Nearly 4,000 firefighters are battling the blaze, which has cost more than $46 million, not counting property loss.
California’s largest wildfires
*--* Acres Destroyed Fire Year County Causes* burned structur Deaths es Cedar 2003 San Diego Human 273,246 4,847 15 Matilija 1932 Ventura Undetermined 220,000 0 0 Marble 1977 Monterey Lightning 177,866 0 0 Cone Laguna 1970 San Diego Power lines 175,425 382 5 McNally 2002 Tulare Human 150,696 17 0 Day 2006 Ventura Human 148,884 5 0 Stanislaus 1987 Tuolumne Lightning 145,980 28 1 Big Bar 1999 Trinity Lightning 140,948 0 0 Campbell 1990 Tehama Power lines 125,892 27 0 Wheeler 1985 Ventura Arson 118,000 26 0 Simi 2003 Ventura Under 108,204 300 0 Investig.
Sources: USGS Rocky Mountain Mapping Center, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, U.S. Forest Service, ESRI, TeleAtlas, Times reporting. Graphics reporting by Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago