Southern California fires live updates: New evacuation orders issued for Carpinteria and Montecito as Thomas fire again rages out of control

Share via

Multiple fires are raging in Southern California. A series of Santa Ana wind-driven wildfires have destroyed hundreds of structures, forced thousands to flee and smothered the region with smoke in what officials predicted would be a pitched battle for days.

Track the latest key details of each major fire | Watch live coverage from KNBC | Follow Times reporters and authorities on Twitter | See photos of the fires: Bel-Air; Ventura County; Sylmar and Santa Clarita | Share your story, photos and video

Track the key details on Southern California’s fires

Share via

Here are all the major fires in Southern California

As of Wednesday, Dec. 13, over 21,000 acres have been burned by the Thomas, Creek, Rye, Skirball, Lilac and Liberty fires. Most of the blazes are close to 100% contained, except for the Thomas fire which is 25% contained. The Liberty and Rye fires are 100% contained.

Sources: InciWeb, Cal Fire, Ventura County, Santa Barbara County, OpenStreetMap, Mapzen. All data is latest available at time of posting.

Share via

For some, Thomas fire triggers ‘controlled fright’

Charles McCaleb is all about trying to keep things in perspective.

In 2008, flames from the Tea fire could be seen from Highway 192 in the hills overlooking Montecito as they destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara County.

Last week, the slopes on either side of Highway 101 in Los Angeles were consumed in fire as countless commuters were stuck in traffic and watched the flames draw near.

And so by that standard — without flames actually entering his community — the 70-year-old said he was doing alright on Monday.

He was staffing a table off Highway 192 as a member of the Montecito Emergency Response Recovery Group, a civilian emergency action organization. McCaleb said that volunteering has been a welcome distraction from the looming fire.

“It’s not like someone-pointing-a-gun-at-you scared,” said McCaleb, who used to work in Army intelligence. “Its more of a controlled fright where you know whats happening.”

He hasn’t slept much in the last week, he said. His voice is gravelly from days of exposure to increasingly unhealthy air brought on by a series of wildfires that have torn across Southern California since Dec. 4.

He and much of the Montecito community, he said, have been checking websites daily for the latest on the fire. Not just official sources like Cal Fire or the Santa Barbara County website, but any webpage that claims to have the latest details on how the fire is behaving.

McCaleb was up at 3 a.m. Monday, checking his computer for the latest on the Thomas fire, which has burned 230,500 acres since it started in Ventura County a week ago. The fire spread into Santa Barbara County over the weekend and is quickly approaching Montecito, officials said.

McCaleb and his wife were chased out of their weekend home in the Ojai Valley on Wednesday as Santa Ana winds pushed the fire north.
Their two-acre property there is protected by a wide brush clearance and a field recently plowed beween their homes and the hills.

Their biggest concern right now is how their koi pond is faring with all the ash.

Share via

Firefighters ready to protect homes in Montecito should the Thomas fire bear down

Firefighters set up in an open field in the Montecito evacuation zone.
(Joseph Serna / Los Angeles Times)

Montecito looked almost like a ghost town Monday.

Stores and gas stations in the evacuation zone north of Highway 192 were closed, and only a scattering of residents remained in the neighborhood.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Fresno-Kings Battalion Chief Roger Raines and his platoon of more than a dozen trucks and water tenders were on hand however. It was their job to assess how vulnerable homes north of the highway between San Ysidro Road and Park Lane were to the incoming fire.

Raines’ defense zone includes about 50 multimillion-dollar estates connected by a tangle of narrow, winding tree-lined roads barely wide enough for the trucks assigned to protect them.

On Monday afternoon he sat in his truck at the intersection of Park Lane and East Mountain Drive, just outside the open field his team designated a safety zone — a place they could regroup if things took a turn for the worse.

“This is our first shift here, but we’ve been running for a week,” Raines said. “We were at the Skirball, then were sent to Riverside and now here.”

With the 230,500-acre Thomas fire still miles to the east, firefighters in Montecito were going door to door Monday to see who did or did not evacuate, which homes had water sources, which had good clearance between their property and the forest and if the home appeared to be defendable should the Thomas fire bear down on the community.

Raines said many of the homes in his zone looked defendable, with tile roofs and gravel landscaping. But, he clarified, that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to be safe if powerful sundowner winds blast the flames down onto the area.

Gusty winds pushed the fire seven miles west overnight, he said, and by Monday afternoon ash was falling in the Montecito community. The sky was a grey haze, and the acrid air stings the back of the throat.

The crews assigned to protect the foothill homes Monday evening will be on patrol for any embers that can spark a fire, Raines said.

The Thomas fire isn’t the worst Raines has seen — he was up in Napa County just two months ago for the wine country fires — but it was unusual.

“It’s December,” he said. “This doesn’t happen in December.”

Share via

Ash and silence blanket beach community of Summerland

The quaint eateries, coffee shops and wine shops along Lillie Drive in Summerland were closed or empty Monday as ash fell on the quiet beach town in Santa Barbara County. Residents walked their dogs and checked the daily fire map posted on a board outside the local fire station.

Up along State Route 192, Laurent Pellerin wore a surgical mask as he packed his red Audi station wagon with winter clothes and snow chains.

The 48-year-old home decor store manager was getting ready to drive his family to Chicago for a new job when the fire closed in on his cottage near Toro Canyon over the weekend. Now they are leaving, unsure if their home will survive after they go.

“It is surreal; we are leaving the fires and rushing to get the snow chains for winter,” he said.

Across the road, a private Wildfire Protection Unit from the Insurer AIG was patrolling one of the high-value homes in the area.

Share via

Difficult terrain presents challenges for firefighters battling Thomas fire

The last time some of the slopes and canyons burned in the mountains east of Santa Barbara in the 1970s, four firefighters operating bulldozers died in a rollover accident.

In such difficult terrain, officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said on Monday that they have essentially no way to get boots and hoses on the ground to attack the western front of the Thomas fire directly.

Instead, fire crews caravanned out of the Ventura County Fairgrounds on Monday and headed to the residential streets in the south-facing foothills of Carpinteria. That’s where they set up defensive positions and waited just in case the fire moved downhill .

“The terrain ... makes it super difficult for us to position with normal tactics,” said Kalin Ramirez, a fire information officer.

While crews stage in town to protect homes, a fleet of fixed wing aircraft will attack flames higher up in the mountains and try to douse the fire directly, Ramirez said.

The Thomas fire has burned 230,500 acres and was 15% contained Monday morning. None of that containment, however, appears to be on the blaze’s western face approaching Santa Barbara.

A rare feature of California’s landscape, the Santa Barbara and Carpinteria communities sit in the shadow of an east-west mountain range that is allowing the flames to run west along its spine, as dry, powerful Santa Ana winds push the blaze.

“We look for rivers, roads and ridges” to set up defenses, Ramirez said.

At night when the air cools, the mass of smoke and ash that were launched skyward by the heat of wildfire can collapse on itself. This creates an outward push of wind and heat out in all directions, further driving the fire, Ramirez said.

Some of the newly burned areas have been turned into a moonscape, Ramirez said. These are typically areas that have not seen flames for decades. These areas are then left vulnerable to mud slides if heavy winter rains ever arrive, officials said.

Moonscaping is when brush burns completely away, “so that the landscape looks like the surface of the moon,” said Ian MacDonald, a public information officer for the Thomas fire.

“That isn’t in all areas, but in some areas that’s what’s happening, which is an indication of what we call extreme fire behavior,” MacDonald said.

Share via

Redding firefighter who suffered broken leg while battling Thomas fire ‘is in good spirits’

A Redding firefighter who was injured while battling the Thomas fire is returning home, officials said Monday.

The firefighter sustained the injury around 7 a.m. Sunday, the Redding Fire Department said in a statement . He was taken to a Santa Barbara hospital, where doctors treated a fracture to his lower leg.

“Our firefighter is in good spirits and is returning home,” the statement said.

The department said it sent another member to replace the injured firefighter on the assignment.

Since the start of the fire, which is now burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the Redding Fire Department has committed two battalion chiefs and three engine crews, for a total of of 13 personnel, according to the department.

Share via

Weaker winds expected as fire crews continue to battle Thomas fire

The Thomas fire burns in the Los Padres National Forest, near Ojai.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

As the Thomas fire continues to rage, burning more than 200,000 acres, wind speeds are expected to be on the lower end of what’s been seen over the last week, forecasters say.

Over Sunday night and into Monday morning, there were wind gusts of around 20 mph across the lower mountains and foothills in the region of southeastern Santa Barbara County into southwestern Ventura County.

“Wind was probably not the biggest factor last night to this morning — it’s probably more the complex terrain, very dry and possibly widespread fuels for the fire and the fact that it’s a pretty large and ongoing fire,” said Robbie Munroe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“The light offshore winds are certainly a factor, but not as important as they’ve been, say, earlier in the week when we saw much stronger winds over the fire.”

The strongest winds are expected more toward the Ventura-Los Angeles County line, Munroe said.

“Even that is not expected to be particularly strong, but since it’s so dry out there it doesn’t take much in the way of winds to create those critical fire weather conditions,” he said. “We’ll see wind gusts in that ... area between 20 and 35 mph, maybe a few mountain sites might see up to about 40, but that’s the most we’re expecting right now.”

The winds near the Thomas fire might be a little bit stronger later on Monday night into early Tuesday morning from the north, Munroe said, possibly 5 mph stronger.

“Right now it doesn’t look too terribly strong, but really any increase in wind is something to watch out for given this fire’s history.”

Share via

When he looked outside, he saw what looked like snow: ‘It was ash, lots of ash’ from the Thomas fire

Carlos Guerra
Carlos Guerra
(Ruben Vives / Los Angeles Times)

Carlos Guerra couldn’t breathe.

There was smoke in the air and the 89-year-old didn’t know where it was coming from. So he opened the door to his trailer home in Carpinteria last week and saw snow.

“It looked that way at least,” he said. “It was ash, lots of ash.”

Concerned for his health, his neighbors called a Lyft driver to take him to an evacuation center in Santa Barbara. Guerra’s neighborhood has been under voluntary evacuation orders since the Thomas fire began inching closer to his coastal town.

At UC Santa Barbara, the Red Cross gave him a cot and began tending to his medical needs, including taking him to a nearby hospital to get a bad bug bite tended to.

“I’m so grateful for everyone here,” he said.

What he left his home with sat by his cot at the center: an envelope of photos and his motorized wheelchair scooter.

“I also took with me a sense of security,” he said smiling. “I’m being taken care of and, to be honest, I’m not worried if I lose my home.”

He said he was grateful organizations such as the Red Cross are available for people like him.

“Who knows what situation I would have found myself in if I had stayed home,” he said.

Share via

These are the Santa Barbara schools that will be closed until after the New Year

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

As fire crews fought to get a handle on the raging Thomas fire, all but one school district in Santa Barbara County decided to cancel Monday classes, officials said late Sunday.

Several of those districts — including Carpinteria Unified, Montecito Unified, Cold Spring, Santa Barbara Unified, Hope Elementary and Goleta — will be closed until after the New Year. Students had been scheduled to start winter break Dec. 18.

Meanwhile, UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry T. Yang announced that the university has postponed final exams until next year.

Power outages and air quality issues, along with the confusion over an emergency alert that buzzed cellphones countywide around 2 a.m. “have only continued to raise the level of anxiety at an already stressful time,” Yang wrote in a letter to the campus. “Continuation of scheduled exams has become untenable.”

Share via

These are the five largest wildfires in modern California history

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Since it started Monday, the Thomas fire has scorched 230,000 acres, making it the fifth-largest wildfire in modern California history.

Here’s a look at the others:

  1. The Cedar fire burned 273,246 acres in San Diego County in 2003. More than 2,800 structures were destroyed and 15 people died.
  2. The Rush fire, caused by lightning, burned 271,911 acres in California and another 43,666 in Nevada in 2012.
  3. The Rim fire in Tuolumne County in 2013 burned 257,314 acres and consumed 112 structures.
  4. The Zaca fire in Santa Barbara County in 2007 charred 240,207 acres and destroyed one structure.
  5. The Thomas fire surpassed the Matilija fire — which scorched 220,000 acres in Ventura County in 1932 — as the fifth largest wildfire.

While other large fires raged in California prior to 1932, those records are less reliable, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Share via

At 230,000 acres, Thomas fire is now the fifth largest wildfire in modern California history

Santa Barbara County was under siege from the Thomas fire Sunday as fire crews fought to keep the destructive blaze from the region’s picturesque beach communities.

Authorities said the out-of-control blaze had scorched 230,000 acres by Sunday evening, making it the fifth largest wildfire in modern California history.

The fire grew by more than 50,000 acres during the day, triggering new evacuation orders for about 5,000 county residents, including those east of Mission Canyon and north of Highway 192. An additional 30,000 residents west of Mission Canyon to Highway 154 and south of Highway 192 to the county line were told to prepare to leave.

Read More

Share via

Fires threaten power lines serving thousands in Santa Barbara and Ventura

Nearly 3,000 households and businesses in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties have been impacted by the Thomas fire, which has burned 155,000 acres since Monday, according to Southern California Edison.

The fire continues to threaten transmission lines serving the Santa Barbara area. As of 11:12 a.m., up to 85,000 customers in the Santa Barbara area were experiencing intermittent outages and power surges. In the Ventura area, 3,211 customers were experiencing outages.

Out of the 305 damaged poles, 58 have been replaced, but progress will be determined by weather, terrain and the movement of the fire, the company said on its website.

“When fully assessed, we anticipate the magnitude of the damage to be extensive,” said the utility.


11:15 a.m.: This story has been updated with specific numbers for the Santa Barbara and Ventura areas.

7:05 a.m.: This story has been updated with more customers — 89,017 — experiencing power outages as of Sunday morning.

This story originally published at 4:35 a.m.

Share via

Here are the areas in Santa Barbara County with evacuation orders or warnings

Share via

His home ‘had views to die for’ -- destroyed in seconds by San Diego’s Lilac fire

Saturday on Wrightwood Road in Bonsall was a time for sifting — sifting through memories, through tears, through ashes.

When the Lilac fire blew through here Thursday afternoon, it burned down at least seven houses on this hilly street, and it would have been worse if firefighters and a half-dozen neighbors hadn’t been there to put out flames that in some places licked to within a few feet of the outside walls.

So along with the lingering smell of wood smoke, there was a swirl of emotion up and down the road Saturday morning. People who lost their houses were grateful to be alive. Those whose houses still stood felt relieved, but also a little guilty, and they grieved for what their neighbors were going through.

It’s a street where everybody seems to know everybody else, if not by name then at least by sight. They shared hugs as some of them returned to their properties for the first time since the fire broke out.

Veterinarian Geoffrey Smith came back to the rubble of what had been a two-story, four-bedroom, 2,250-square-foot house. He’s lived there since 1980 with his wife, and more recently also with his 93-year-old mother. They raised four kids there.

“It had views to die for,” he said. “It was also made out of wood, which is why it burned down.”

Read more here.

Share via

San Diego County’s Lilac fire devastates retirement community

John Knapp didn’t know what he would find when he returned to his home in the Rancho Monserate Country Club retirement community Friday morning, a day after the Lilac fire swept through.

Dozens of the 230 carefully kept manufactured houses, lined up in neat, hillside rows, burned to the ground in the wildfire that covered nearly 4,000 acres in about 12 hours. Residents had just minutes to evacuate.

“I thought I saw it burning on TV last night,” Knapp said as he rushed up the street toward his place.

As he got close, he could only see part of the house. He wondered aloud whether the house had been damaged. Then he saw the front, good as new.

“It’s still there!” he shouted. “As much smoke as this place was putting out, I thought they were all burning. I’ll be damned. I can’t believe it.”

The wildfire started about 11:30 a.m. Thursday near the intersection of Interstate 15 and state Route 76. Almost immediately, the dry, gusty Santa Ana winds carried the flames west across the nearby Rancho Monserate community in Fallbrook and into the mostly rural area of the San Luis Rey River valley.

Not everyone was as fortunate as Knapp.

Read more here.

Share via

Evacuations in Carpinteria, Montecito

Evacuations were ordered in parts of Carpinteria and Montecito as the Thomas fire moved into Santa Barbara County’s southern coast.

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department said at least one home was burned.

Share via

Brush fire breaks out in Monrovia

A brush fire that ignited in Monrovia on Saturday night prompted evacuations of residents along Norumbega Dr. and a large group of Boy Scouts.

Initial reports suggest the fire broke out near the foothills of the Angeles National Forest, north of the 210 freeway. It’s estimated to have burned three acres.

The evacuees included a group of Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts who were staying at Camp Trask, a campsite in the foothills of the national forest. They were there for a shooting sports weekend.

A member of the group, David Hilton, estimated there were as many as 150 people at the camp, including troop leaders. He said the Scouts learned about the fire from a forest ranger who came to tell them they were all being evacuated.

“The fire is near us but it’s down at the bottom of the canyon,” Hilton said. “Everybody’s getting out. Looks like we’re safe.”

U.S. Forest Service firefighters, who responded along with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, described the blaze as “terrain & fuels-driven.”

Read More

Share via

At least 46 horses dead after San Diego County wildfire

Terrified horses gallop from San Luis Rey Downs as the Lilac fire swept through the horse-training facility Thursday.
Terrified horses gallop from San Luis Rey Downs as the Lilac fire swept through the horse-training facility Thursday.
(Paul Sisson / San Diego Union-Tribune)

At least 46 horses were killed at a thoroughbred training facility during the Lilac wildfire in northern San Diego County, and others remain missing.

Mike Marten, a spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board, said Saturday that the death toll at San Luis Rey Downs could rise. He said the thoroughbred facility in Bonsall accommodates 495 horses and that at least 450 were there when the fire struck on Thursday.

Marten said a small number of horses escaped to the wilderness through a fence that was knocked down and haven’t been located.

Read More

Share via

‘We’re facing a new reality in this state,’ Gov. Jerry Brown says of wildfires

California Gov. Jerry Brown discusses the Thomas fire and the extended length of the state's fire season during a news conference on Saturday in Ventura.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday surveyed the devastation in Ventura, the city hardest hit by this week’s firestorms. Brown’s visit comes four days after he declared a state of emergency.

In all, there are six wildfires burning in Southern California. About 8,500 firefighters are battling the fires, which have collectively burned 175,000 acres.

“We’re facing a new reality in this state, where fires threatened people’s lives, their properties, their neighborhoods and billions and billions of dollars. So we have to have the resources to combat the fires,” he told reporters during a news conference at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

The governor thanked firefighters for their efforts and expressed sympathy for residents who had lost their homes and animals, calling it a “horror” and “terrible tragedy for so many people.”

Brown added that climate change may exacerbate the weather conditions that caused the wildfires to explode.

“This is the new normal, and this could be something that happens every year or every few years,” he said. “We’re about to have a firefighting Christmas.”

Read More

Share via

In a neighborhood hit hard by Thomas fire, one family arrives to find their home spared

With improved air quality on Saturday morning, residents in the Ondulando area of Ventura returned to check on their homes. Members of the National Guard stood outside on street corners to protect people’s property.

The neighborhood was one of the hardest hit by the Thomas fire. Rows of homes on streets that sit near the hillside were incinerated.

Terry Davis and his wife, Tahnil Davis, arrived Saturday to check on their home on Via Arroyo Street, which had been spared by the fire. They give credit to their 12-year-old daughter’s passion for softball for saving theirs and their neighbors’ houses.

“We happened to be building a batting cage for her so our backyard was completely gutted,” Tahnil Davis said. “Firefighters were able to park their truck in our backyard and save homes.”

The family bought their house in August. They said they were taken aback by the community’s positive attitude despite losing so much.

“We wanted to move here because people in Ventura are so nice,” Tahnil Davis said. “But now I really know we made the right decision.”

Share via

Efforts to battle the Thomas Fire in Ventura County have cost $17 million so far, officials say

Efforts to battle the Thomas fire in Ventura County have cost $17 million since the blaze first exploded on Monday, officials said Saturday.

Crews working from helicopters and air tankers have dropped 712,000 gallons of fire suppressant across the fire. The retardant includes a mixture of water, foam and fertilizer, which helps vegetation grow back after a fire.

Wind has been a consistent threat throughout the week, and meteorologists advised fire officials that the Santa Ana winds could return Saturday afternoon. If that happens, winds could push the fire toward Santa Barbara County, including the coastal communities of Carpinteria and Summerland.

Bulldozers have been working to build fire breaks near that portion of the fire, in case the blaze does make a run toward Carpinteria, said Rich Macklin, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.

Near Fillmore, firefighters are working to contain a blaze burning through the backcountry.

“This is a complex fire,” Macklin said. “There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men and women with packs on their backs, squirting the hills, putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.”

Earlier this week, Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen estimated that if the winds continue and the area sees no rain, the Thomas fire could continue burning for weeks.

An estimated 87,000 people have evacuated since Monday. As people return to their homes, Macklin cautioned them to keep an eye out for downed power lines, damaged gas lines and any other threats.

Share via

Dogs trained for disaster relief were displaced by the Thomas fire. Their trainers are using it as a learning experience

Sonja Heritage is the head canine trainer at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.
(Melissa Etehad / Los Angeles Times)

When Sonja Heritage walked inside a small meeting room at the second floor of the Marriott Hotel in Ventura, nearly 20 dogs in their kennels started wagging their tails and barking in excitement.

Heritage is the head canine trainer at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, one of the only nonprofits in the nation that takes shelter dogs and trains them in disaster relief search and rescue missions and provides them free of charge to handlers at fire departments and other first response agencies, said spokeswoman Denise Sanders.

The organization has trained 184 dogs on its property in Wheeler Canyon Road in Santa Paula, Sanders said. Their dogs have assisted in search and rescue missions at ground zero after 9/11, the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and most recently in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

On Monday, the Thomas fire swept through their 125-acre property, burning parts of the area where they train dogs.

Around eight staff members helped evacuate the nearly 20 dogs on the property. Since then, the animals, along with Heritage and other staff, have been staying at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Ventura, where they care for the dogs.

On Saturday, Heritage was playing with one of the canines — a 2-year-old black German shepherd named Zeek. She tried to yank the ball away from him, but his grip was too tight.

“He’s my heart,” Heritage said. “He reminds me of my dog who died last year.”

All the dogs staying at the Marriott Hotel are being trained to find people buried under rubble, she said.

“These dogs love toys, so we use that as part of training,” Heritage said.

Although the hotel is not an ideal place to house dogs, Heritage is using the displacement as an opportunity to help the animals get acquainted with a different environment.

“It’s good that they’re around so many people,” she said. “We walk them up and down the stairs and throughout the hotel at least eight times a day.”

But she looks forward to returning to Santa Paula and rebuilding parts of the property that were damaged.

“We hope to return in a few days,” she said.

Share via

Investigators probe cause of San Diego County wildfire

What caused the Lilac fire in San Diego County? Investigators are trying to figure that out.

The fire began about 11:15 a.m. Thursday near the entrance to a mobile home park, off Old Highway 395 about a mile south of State Route 76 and a few hundred feet west of southbound Interstate 15, which runs parallel to the highway.

The fire was reported by motorists while still quite small, according to initial accounts.

Pushed by winds, the blaze ignited brush in a valley between the freeway and the highway and then quickly spread across Old Highway 395 and headed west.

The method of investigating how wildland fires begin has remained virtually the same for decades.

The first order of business is to determine as closely as possible the exact point of origin. Using established scientific methods and often a series of small flags to track a fire’s course, investigators can usually determine a fire’s origin quickly and within a few feet.

“Especially in a wind-driven fire, it’s going to travel in a cone,” said Escondido Fire Department spokesman Dominic Polito.

Read more here.

Share via

‘Three Musketeers’ save their neighborhood from fire

From left: Cathy Orchard, Todd Smith and Don Philippbar helped battle a raging wildfire.
(John Gastaldo / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“The Three Musketeers” of French literary fame fought corruption with rapiers, but the newly nicknamed Three Musketeers of Bonsall fought off a raging firestorm Thursday night with little more than a pair of expired fire hoses.

Neighbors Cathy Orchard and Don Philippbar and his stepson, Todd Smith, ignored evacuation orders and stayed to defend their homes and several others on Redondo Drive, just south of Highway 76. By dawn Friday, they had rescued five houses that were all aflame at many points during the long, windy night.

“It was pretty scary for a while there. You talk about firestorms — this was definitely one,” said Philippbar, 60, a self-employed cabinet-maker. “It was a little freaky inside it — kind of like a tornado passing right over you.”

Grace Yamane, a San Diego Fire battalion chief who did firewatch overnight to give the exhausted trio a few hours sleep, said their efforts were critical in controlling the dozens of continuous spot fires caused by wind-driven embers.

She doesn’t recommend that homeowners ever try to face an approaching fire on their own. But the trio — who jokingly dubbed themselves “musketeers” during their tag-team operation Thursday night — aren’t your typical homeowners. Between them, they have nearly 50 years of combined firefighting experience.

Read More

Share via

More than 100 structures destroyed in Creek fire

Officials on Saturday announced more progress on two fires in Los Angeles County while also offering more information about their destructive force.

The Creek fire, which burned homes in the hills above Sylmar, was now 80% contained. Cal Fire said that blaze burned 56 residences and 49 other structures.

The Rye fire in Santa Clarita was 65% contained. It has destroyed one structure.

Share via

Some evacuation orders lifted for Ojai

Fire crews hose down hot spots on North Rice Road in Ojai.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

With the Thomas fire in Ventura County 10% contained Friday night, authorities announced they have lifted evacuation orders for parts of the Ojai Valley.

The area includes territory within the city limits, Creek Road, Meiners Oaks from Rice Road east, and unincorporated areas east of the city to Reeves Road, according to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.

Areas that remain under evacuation include unincorporated areas west of Rice Road, plus Highway 33 north of Fairview Drive and Highway 150 east of Reeves Road.

The fire has spread across 143,000 acres so far.

For more information go to or call 805-654-2551.

Share via

Authorities report progress on Thomas fire; some evacuation orders lifted

Fire officials said they made good progress Friday due to weakening of the Santa Ana winds. Bill Murphy, public information officer with Cal Fire, said firefighters had a successful day fighting flames on the southern edge toward the coast as well as in parts of Ojai thanks to favorable wind patterns, diminished Santa Anas and crews improving fire lines they had established.

By Friday evening, the Thomas fire had burned 143,000 acres and was at 10% containment. As a result, Murphy said, evacuation orders for most of Ventura and Santa Paula were lifted. Firefighters continued to encounter difficulty on the east side of the fire above Fillmore.

Firefighters used helicopters to drop water in that area to try to contain the blaze. Firefighters also made progress on Highway 33 and U.S. 101 on the west side of the fire. They said activity in that area has decreased from previous days.

Tim Chavez, a fire behavior analyst for Cal Fire, said in previous days firefighters were contending with blazes that were driven by the wind.

On Friday, Chavez said, they were battling fuel-driven fires. “Today’s fire moved slower but with higher intensity, but only in places with heavy fuels,” Chavez said.

Officials at Friday’s news conference estimate the cost of the Thomas fire to be at least $17 million and said that more than 4,000 firefighters are engaged.

Share via

Thomas fire grows to 143,000 acres, 10% contained

The Thomas fire, which has burned hundreds of homes in Ventura County, has consumed 143,000 acres, officials said Friday evening.

The fire is 10% contained, and officials said firefighters made solid progress Friday as Santa Ana winds weakened.

Many evacuations remain in effect.

Share via

Skirball fire in Bel-Air is 50% contained

Officials on Friday said the Skirball fire burning in Bel-Air is now 50% contained.

The mayor’s office said evacuation orders remain in place for residents on two stretches of Linda Flora Drive and a stretch of Moraga Drive.

Share via

San Diego’s 211 emergency call system broke down during firestorm

San Diego County’s much-vaunted emergency communications system was unavailable for a multitude of callers as a runaway wildfire raced across northern San Diego County most of Thursday.

Caller after caller could not connect with a live person for fire information or directions about where to evacuate the Lilac fire.

“I got a recording from Verizon that said the line was disconnected,” said Edward Collins, a retired airline marketing professional who was watching the fire from the backyard of his San Marcos home.

“I assumed it was going to say the area’s under mandatory evacuation and which areas should be concerned, but all I got was a non-working number,” Collins added. “I called several times, and my wife called also. We called on two different cellphones.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune could not get through to the service Thursday afternoon either.

The organization, known as 2-1-1 San Diego, said on Twitter that it was experiencing a high volume of calls but indicated the system was operational.

Read More

Share via

More Santa Ana winds coming to San Diego County fire areas this weekend

Dry Santa Ana winds will roar back to life in San Diego County over the weekend, and some of the strongest gusts could hit the area of the Lilac fire, according to the National Weather Service.

“The winds will begin to gradually pick up on Saturday afternoon, mostly in the East County foothills, from Julian to Alpine,” said Alex Tardy, a weather service forecaster.

“By sunrise Sunday, the winds could be gusting 55 to 65 mph in the foothills. Then the winds will spread out. It looks like they’ll gust 20, 30 and maybe 40 mph where the Lilac fire is. And some of the winds will spread all the way to the coast.”

Read More

Share via

93-year-old man missing in San Diego County fire

For 24 hours since the Lilac fire broke out Thursday, Pat Bailey has been searching for her 93-year-old husband, Ralph.

“He’s been missing since yesterday morning,” she said, after checking the evacuation shelter at Palomar College on Friday morning.

She said her husband is slightly built, gray-haired and bent over and uses a walker. He may have been wearing a turquoise T-shirt, and had a blue and white parakeet with him. Friends helped her call police, fire and sheriff’s officials.

The couple live in the Rancho Monserate Country Club, near the site where the fire broke out in Bonsall on Thursday morning. Pat Bailey was out shopping when the fire erupted and could not reenter the community when she returned.

“They wouldn’t let me into my home,” she said. “I waited all afternoon.”

Police said they moved her husband, she said, but they did not provide information on where he was taken.

“He didn’t have anything with him, except his bird in a cage,” she said.

Read more

Share via

LAUSD schools closed because of the fires are to reopen Monday

All Los Angeles Unified schools closed because of the wildfires will reopen Monday, the district announced.

“The decision to reopen schools was based on improved air quality and the lifting of mandatory evacuations that affecting school communities,” a district advisory stated. Over the weekend, the district is employing crews to install new air filters at the closed schools, and to otherwise prepare them for the return of students.

Many schools across Ventura, Riverside, San Diego and Los Angeles counties were closed Friday because of the fires.

Share via

Firefighters deploy aircraft to battle the Lilac fire, which led to about 10,000 evacuations

A firefighter turns away from the heat as flames explode through the front windows of a home burning in the Lilac fire.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times )

With a fleet of four fixed-winged aircraft, 15 helicopters and more than 1,000 firefighters, state fire officials said Friday they are confident they can keep the Lilac fire at bay and avoid further mandatory evacuations.

An estimated 10,000 residents were evacuated when the Lilac fire broke out near the 15 Freeway in Bonsall on Thursday afternoon and destroyed at least 85 structures, many of them homes.

The fire has grown to 4,100 acres and was 0% contained Friday morning, said Cal Fire San Diego spokesman Kendal Bortisser.

The flames were driven by gusty Santa Ana winds that fanned flames in Riverside, Los Angeles and Ventura counties over the last four days. Firefighters from states spanning the Western U.S. have flooded the region to join the battle.

“When a tornado hits the Midwest, there’s no stopping it,” Bortisser said. “When a hurricane hits the East Coast there’s no stopping. When the Santa Ana winds come in, there’s no stopping them.”

About 850 horses, among countless other animals, were evacuated Thursday night.

Share via

Size, spread, timing: Some differences between this week’s Southern California fires and fall’s Northern California blazes

A traffic collision temporarily clogs lanes on the northbound 101 Freeway between Solimar and Faria beaches.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Individually, none of this fall’s fires in Northern California came close to the acreage of the 132,000-acre Thomas fire in Ventura County, though combined, the blazes up north scorched more than 240,000 acres.

The deadliest fire in Northern California, the Tubbs, burned 36,807 acres and was responsible for 22 deaths, sweeping through swaths of Santa Rosa.

Though wind speeds were comparable, “You had 10 large fires within the fires two hours up in Northern California” when the firestorms began, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean, compared to just a few in Southern California.

A number of other factors may also have played a role: The deadliest fires in Northern California ignited later in the night than the Thomas fire in Ventura, which may have contributed to people’s evacuation time, McLean said.

The Tubbs fire ignited at 9:45 p.m., while the Thomas ignited at 6:26 p.m., he said.

“People are up, they’re paying attention, they’re aware … as opposed to waking up out of a dead sleep,” McLean said.

He also pointed out that the median age of the people who died in Northern California was around 70, and many people may have had mobility issues.

The terrain and topographies also differ, and the road system is better in Ventura County, he said.

“It’s hard to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together to determine” what led to more than 40 lost lives in one place and none in another, McLean said.

Share via

First fire, now smoke: Carpinteria residents line up outside a doughnut shop that’s giving away face masks

Fire personnel keep an eye on the Thomas fire on Toland Road near Santa Paula.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

At the Casitas Shopping Center, more than 100 people stood in a line that stretched from Albertson’s to a doughnut shop on the corner.

The residents were there to collect masks as smoke and ash from the Thomas fire had affected the air quality.

Among them was Gloria Rivera, who said she learned about the mask distribution through Facebook.

Rivera, short with black curly hair, said she came to grab masks for herself, her husband and two grandchildren.

Even one for her Chihuahua, Mamba.

“I’m gonna try and put it on him,” she said.

Rivera said she lives in an area where voluntary evacuations have been issued. She said she left home Wednesday as a precaution but returned Thursday to check on her house. She has since decided to stay home.

Also collecting masks for her family was Concepcion Theresa Sexton, who said her daughter, son in-law and three grandchildren were evacuated from Ojai and staying with her until they could return to their home.

She said she won’t be affected by the fire, but air quality has been a major concern for her.

Volunteers with the Community Response Team were handing out green masks to residents.

Organizers said they have 3,000 masks in both adult and children’s sizes to distribute.

Share via

Southern California’s hospitals prepare for the worst as embers ignite throughout the region

Burned palm trees are left standing between the 101 Freeway and Faria Beach as the Thomas fire reaches the Pacific Ocean.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Hospitals across Southern California reported that high numbers of patients with breathing problems caused by this week’s wildfires visited emergency rooms.

Health officials in Ventura, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties warned of high pollution levels caused by smoke. The microscopic particles in smoke can penetrate deep into the lungs, creating a hazard for those who already have heart or lung problems such as asthma, emphysema or COPD.

Read More

Share via

‘There’s a lot of dead horses.’ San Diego fire kills many thoroughbreds

Accustomed to the highly-regimented life of the racetrack, hundreds of thoroughbreds frantically galloped together Thursday trying to escape the blazing Lilac wildfire.

Terrified, the speedsters stampeded through Bonsall’s San Luis Rey Downs horse-training facility, whinnying, rolling their eyes and thundering through thick smoke as the fire quickly consumed the barns where they had spent the morning serenely munching hay.

The fire arrived at the sprawling 500-stall complex on Camino Del Rey about one mile east of Highway 76 a bit before 2 p.m., causing ever-more-frantic public address system calls to move the horses to the facility’s one-mile track.

At first, the barn evacuation was orderly, with trainers doing all they could to coax the glossy and muscular bunch up a slight rise that connected the stables to the track.

But the wind picked up suddenly, causing embers to surge westward onto barn roofs, engulfing the whole area in thick smoke, whinnies escaping through the gloom interspersed with frantic calls of “behind you” from trainers trying to keep their friends and colleagues from ending up underneath unpredictable hooves.

Now and then, small herds of horses would gallop from the smoke-shrouded barn bloc, sometimes bolting up to the main track and comparative safety, sometimes opting to keep circling their fiery homes, a maelstrom of confused and panicked horseflesh with no clear compass.

Trainer Linda Thrash of Bonsall was in the middle of that confusion, trying to lead the 41 horses that the company she works for stables in barn L at the Downs to safety.

“We tried to keep up with it, stomping on embers and using the hose, but it just started coming so fast that we just couldn’t stay with it,” Thrash said. “Eventually, we just had to turn them loose. There was not time to do anything else.”

Barns, she noted, tend to be full of flammable material that makes keeping up with a wind-driven blaze more difficult.

As dozens, then hundreds of horses were turned out of their stalls, trainers and other personnel tried frantically to get them under control. Eventually, most calmed down enough to be loaded onto trailers destined for the stables at Del Mar Fairgrounds. But there was a time there in the middle of the action where it seemed like many of the horses would never stop moving long enough to be coaxed in the right direction.

With visibility very low, and thousand-pound animals moving in often-random directions, trampling was a very real possibility. But that did not appear to have happened Thursday afternoon. A Downs employee who declined to give his name said he was unaware of any cases where people were run down.

The horses were not so lucky.

Trainer Brian Kozak said he saw several had collapsed on the track and more died in the barns.

“There’s a lot of dead horses,” he said. “A lot of them just didn’t get out of their stalls and got asphyxiated.”

Read more here.

Share via

Why there are no confirmed fire-linked deaths or missing person reports in the Thomas fire

People brave rooftops to extinguish embers from spot fires between the 101 Freeway and Faria Beach as the Thomas fire threatens homes.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Fire officials said residents in Ventura County who quickly obeyed evacuation orders were the main reason why confirmed deaths linked to the fires have been avoided.

“It’s not easy to evacuate so many people, especially with a fire moving this fast,” said Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Scott Quirarte.

Nearly 27,000 people obeyed the alerts that appeared on their phones and which they received from officials who ordered the evacuation at the start of the Thomas fire, Quirarte said. “People didn’t wait around. People followed the orders, and there wasn’t any delay.”

As of Friday, Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Donoghue said that there are no missing persons reports linked to the fire and that all people initially thought missing have been accounted for.

Donoghue credits social media and cellphone alert systems as well as “old-school” door-knocking for spreading the urgency of the evacuation orders and preventing deaths. “With what happened in the Northern California fires with loss of life, people here didn’t want that to happen,” he said. “So they listened.”

Share via

View Thomas fire damage from the streets of a Ventura neighborhood

The Thomas fire started northeast of Ventura and spread through a largely uninhabited mountainous area before reaching the city of Ventura. Colina Vista was a street that suffered extreme damage, with many houses destroyed in the blaze.

Photographer Brian van der Brug captured these 360-degree images of Colina Vista.

Share via

Red flag fire conditions in most areas continue through Sunday, but winds are slowing down

Smoke rises from the Thomas fire over the Ventura Harbor at sunset.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The dry, gusty winds that have fanned a half dozen wildfires in Southern California will continue through next week, the National Weather Service said.

Red flag conditions – a combination of extremely low relative humidity and wind speeds that indicate a serious threat if a fire were to occur – are in effect through 8 p.m. Sunday, said meteorologist Tom Fisher.

“Monday and Tuesday, things should be kind of dull, fortunately,” Fisher said.

The wind speeds expected Friday are a far cry from the hurricane-force gusts that drove a wall of fire into Ventura on Monday evening and down toward more than 100,000 residents in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County the following morning.

According to forecasters, winds ranging from 25 to 35 mph in Ventura County around the Thomas fire will continue to push the fire south and southwest with the occasional 45 mph gusts.

Winds will be even calmer inland, where they will move at 15 to 25 mph with 35 mph gusts in the San Gabriel Valley, Fisher said.

Farther south in Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties, winds have slowed tremendously from Monday and Tuesday, where gusts clocked in at more than 80 mph, down to between 30 and 50 mph for cities between Riverside and Palomar on Friday.

Two fires broke out in those areas Thursday afternoon and have scorched more than 4,000 acres and destroyed dozens of structures.

Share via

Firefighters warned of erratic winds as they continue to battle Thomas fire

Thomas Fire smoke rises from the Santa Paula and Filmore area as seen from Ventura Harbor.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

As firefighters gathered Friday morning for another day battling the Thomas Fire, officials told them to be sensitive to residents who were going to find out their homes were razed.

“Treat them like you would treat your community,” fire officials told firefighters on Friday morning as started new shifts.

Firefighters were also warned of the dangers of changing wind patterns and told to be even more cautious of their surroundings. Erratic wind patterns Friday could change direction of flames, putting them at higher risk of getting caught without an escape route.

“The Santa Ana winds are predicted to die down by the afternoon and with that the breeze from the ocean will pick up,” said Ventura County Fire Department Public Information Officer Scott Quirarte. “Firefighters will need to pay attention to the winds and the type of terrain their on.”

Santa Ana winds are expected to pick up by evening, officials said. So far, no firefighters have had major injuries. Officials at the briefing said there have been four minor injuries.

The Thomas Fire has so far consumed 132,000 acres and is 10% contained. Officials are currently trying to assess damage done to property in areas hidden by thick brush.

There will be 22 helicopters fighting the flames from above. Residents in parts of Carpinteria were issue