Gentler-than-expected winds Thursday morning gave firefighters a toehold against the wildfire burning in Bel-Air, which was 20% contained by 11 a.m.
The 475-acre Skirball fire has not grown in nearly a day, a testament to the overnight assault that crews launched on the western and northern edges of the fire, closest to the 405 Freeway and multimillion-dollar homes, officials said.
Despite the progress, the fight was far from over, officials said. Thursday afternoon, firefighters will face bone-dry air with a relative humidity of 4%, and 33 mph winds out of the northeast that could push the fire toward the 405.
One of Ventura County’s most prominent politicians, former Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury, walked into the Ojai police station Thursday, frustrated after days of living out of his car and monitoring the shifting Thomas fire.
Bradbury, wearing aviator glasses as he leaned on his cane, said he had fled to the Ventura County Fairgrounds earlier this week with about half of his horses — he sits on the fairgrounds board, after all — but wanted to return to his ranch in Ojai. The retired D.A., who held the position for more than two decades, just didn’t know where the fire was or whether the threat was still real.
City Manager Steve McClary sympathized with Bradbury’s frustration. “The problem with giving specifics of the fire: It could change in five minutes,” McClary said.
Along Highway 33, about 3 miles north of Ojai, some residents who fled late Wednesday returned Thursday morning to find their homes in ruins.
One relative of a homeowner, who declined to be identified, said her mother in law was ordered to evacuate her three-bedroom home off Camino Cielo and the Maricopa Highway. She returned to find a heap of smoldering rubble. Her family members said they were working to restore a water pump so that they could douse hot spots and soak the embers.
Other homes off Highway 33 were spared. A ranch atop a ridge at Cozy Ojai Road stood virtually untouched, with a yellow Post-It on the front door for firefighters and first responders: “we evacuated!”
Above Ojai, off Hwy 33: Home leveled by the blaze. Hwy 33 closed as Caltrans clears rubble with plows; downed power line blocking roadway at Camino Cielo pic.twitter.com/VCSSfjCJU2
The 80-mile-per-hour winds expected in Los Angeles late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning did not materialize, giving firefighters in Bel-Air a minor reprieve as they continued to knock down flames threatening homes in one of the region’s wealthiest enclaves.
Winds reached speeds of 40 mph overnight, but the steep canyons east of the 405 Freeway worked in firefighters’ favor, sheltering the fire from the strongest gusts and preventing embers from sparking new spot fires, said Los Angeles Fire Department Assistant Chief Armando Hogan.
The Skirball fire burning just east of the 405 Freeway remained 5% contained Thursday morning and had burned 475 acres, fire officials said.
Julio Varela stood at the base of La Conchita Road and breathed a sigh of relief. While the abandoned structure just to the left of his home burned down, his house was safe.
Varela, 67, was at dinner with friends Wednesday night when he heard about the fire nearing La Conchita. All five of the friends he was with had lost their homes in Ventura.
Around 9 p.m., he made his way back to the neighborhood where he’s lived for 35 years. The police arrived shortly after and urged everyone to evacuate. But Varela stayed. He snuck into his brown house, grabbed a hose and started to water the balcony and roof, and douse any embers that flared up.