From Castro Peak in the Santa Monica Mountains, the sun is beginning to set when a small bright light emerges far in the distance. The tiny speck, barely noticeable, marks the beginning of another massive California wildfire.
Within seconds — fanned by strong Santa Ana winds — the fire explodes, sending up massive flames and a plume of dark smoke that quickly blanketed small the agricultural towns just south of Santa Paula.
Thursday’s ignition of the Maria fire in Ventura County was captured by a camera from the ALERT Wildfire program, an effort by three universities — UC San Diego, the University of Nevada and the University of Oregon — to help firefighters investigate the origins of fires and their behavior. The program is funded by utility companies throughout California, including Southern California Edison.
The camera, mounted atop the peak of the Santa Monica Mountains, recorded the fire’s first moments after it broke out on South Mountain about 6:16 p.m. Thursday and quickly began burning toward Somis and Saticoy, forcing more than 1,000 residents to flee.
Studying the footage helps firefighters develop a strategy as they battle wildfires and help residents evacuate, Neal Driscoll, a professor of geology and geoscience at UC San Diego, told The Times last week.
“Our whole goal is to save lives, minimize burning of wildland and [save] habitats,” he said. “First responders and Cal Fire have password-encrypted rights to get on the cameras” through their cellphones.
By 7 a.m. Friday, the Maria fire had grown to 8,730 acres and had already burned two structures, including a home. At the tail end of a strong Santa Ana wind event, firefighters have struggled to gain control of the blaze, which remained 0% contained nearly 18 hours after it ignited.
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Though strong winds have complicated the fight, the blaze broke out high on the ridge so it gave authorities time to conduct evacuations before the flames moved down the mountain and into residential areas, said Ventura Assistant Fire Chief John McNeil.
McNeil said the location of the Maria fire means it probably will run out of fuel to burn once it reaches more manicured landscapes at the bottom of the hill.
More than 500 firefighters battling the blaze took advantage of lighter winds overnight and early Friday, using a helicopter with night-flying capabilities and ground crews in an effort to protect nearby homes and avocado and citrus orchards, Ventura County Fire Capt. Brian McGrath said.
“The winds have died down and the cold temperatures have reduced the fire’s ability to aggressively run downhill,” McGrath said. “Today we’re going to see what the sun looks like on it and see what the normal onshore breeze is going to do for us.”
Times staff writer Alejandra Reyes-Velarde contributed to this report.