Perched on a hill overlooking Simi Valley and Moorpark, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library offers sweeping views. But that location has long made it vulnerable to wildfires.
On Wednesday, the fast-moving Easy fire had surrounded the library, which was closed to the public. Those in the library sheltered in place as helicopters dumped thousands of gallons of water on nearby flames and fire crews cut containment lines around the fast-moving blaze.
The fire was being held back by an aggressive ground and aerial attack on the ridges beyond Simi’s modern residential estates.
Helicopters repeatedly dropped loads of water behind the library amid 60-mph winds, turning the flames on the ridge 300 feet below into smoke. Amid wind gusts strong enough to knock a person off balance, two super-scooper planes dipped down behind the library before unleashing such a volume of water it created its own rainbow.
Every two minutes, a new chopper or super-scooper swooped overhead, dipping down into the canyon behind the library.
“They are getting beat up good, those pilots,” JD Nees, a Navy reserve pilot, said of the helicopter pilots who are navigating 60-mph winds whipping across their paths. “I have flown those things.”
Nees watched as the pilots made run after run at the flames before a hand crew appeared on the hill. “That’s a good sight to see,” he said, as two inmates crews began working to tamp out the smoldering soil.
As the fire swept down the ridge toward Roosevelt Court, an off-duty LAPD officer wearing a raid jacket began yelling, alerting residents that the fire was coming down the hill. Tensions immediately heightened as the flames became visible to homeowners.
Rory Kaplan has lived on Roosevelt since the homes were built there in 2001.
“I got the reverse 911 about 6:30 a.m.,” he said. “I pulled the cars out into the driveway, put the passports and bank documents in one and my musical instruments in the other car. I am ready to go.”
Simi police began directing everyone via loudspeaker to leave the neighborhood behind the Reagan Library. Kaplan joined the exodus.
“One thing is sure, they aren’t going to let Reagan’s Library burn — and that protects us,” he said.
Roads out of Simi Valley were packed as residents poured south toward Thousand Oaks, their cars and SUVs brimming with boxes packed with treasured objects.
The library, which is designed to withstand earthquakes and wildfires, has been threatened by fire in the past. Officials say they take pains to protect the facility, ensuring that the open space around the building is kept clear. Each year, the library brings in goats to eat vegetation around the buildings.
Opened in 1991, the library is home to the Marine One presidential helicopter, Air Force One presidential aircraft, a piece of the Berlin Wall, a replica of Reagan’s White House Oval Office and a steel beam recovered from the World Trade Center after 9/11.
Two years after the library opened, the Reagan family threw a celebration there for firefighters who battled Southern California’s 1993 firestorms.
“Many years ago, we lost our old ranch in Malibu to fire,” the president’s daughter Maureen Reagan said at the time. “When those winds start to blow, the same could happen to any one of us. We live in a place with unique terrain that’s continually touched by fire, and thank God we have unique and special men and women that are trained to stop those fires when they threaten people.”
The Easy fire, which broke out shortly after 6 a.m., has burned 1,300 acres and is threatening 6,500 homes.