Large fires threaten Ventura County communities; 101 Freeway closed, more than 1,000 homes evacuated


Portions of Ventura County were under siege Thursday evening as two large fires descended on neighborhoods, threatening numerous communities reeling from the massacre at a country music bar the night before.

The Hill fire was being whipped up by powerful winds that pushed it through canyons and to the edge of Camarillo Springs and Cal State Channel Islands, both of which were evacuated.

The blaze broke out in the Hill Canyon area and in just 12 minutes jumped the 101 Freeway. By Thursday evening, it had scorched up to 7,000 acres and sent residents of more than 1,200 homes fleeing. Fire officials expect it will burn all the way to the ocean.


The fire, as well as a smaller one that broke out to the east near Box Canyon, created chaotic conditions in an area that less than 24 hours earlier was devastated by a mass shooting that left 12 people and the gunman dead.

Late Thursday, the second blaze — the Woolsey fire — flared up and mandatory evacuations were ordered for Oak Park. Firefighters were actively defending structures on north Lindero Canyon Road, according to Ventura County Fire’s Twitter feed. Emergency cellphone alerts were also sent out.

Television footage showed several homes on fire in the Oak Park community. High winds were driving the flames.

Ventura County Fire Capt. Brian McGrath said his team responded to both the shooting and the fires. And after coming off their shifts, several firefighters participated in the procession for Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, who was killed in the shooting.

“Most personnel were able to get a few hours of rest and, now, are back at it,” McGrath said. “We are ready and we are here.”


Authorities have shut down the 101 Freeway in both directions at Camarillo Springs Road, forcing some motorists to drive down the wrong side of the freeway to avoid the fire. Live television footage showed at least one home and several RVs consumed by flames. One firefighter was injured.

Paul Heckathorne, 42, of Newbury Park was driving home from work when he saw smoke spewing from the hills. He pulled off the freeway to see where the fire was coming from.

“I’ve lived here for a long time, and I’ve seen these hills go up in flames many times,” he said. “It happens and it’s made worse by Santa Ana winds.”

The blaze, which began about 2 p.m., prompted the evacuation of a water treatment plant and hiking trails, officials said Thursday afternoon. A nearby trailer park also was being evacuated.

The fire broke out in Hill Canyon off Santa Rosa Road near Newbury Park, according to the Ventura County Fire Department. It’s burning in the footprint of the Springs fire, which scorched more than 24,000 acres a few years ago, McGrath said.

“The wind is definitely pushing this thing toward the ocean just like the Springs fire a few years ago,” he said. “It’s very fast.”

Firefighters were attempting to attack it by air because steep terrain has made the burn area inaccessible.

“We’re doing our best to attack this fire from the air, but extreme winds prohibits our ability,” Fire Capt. Stan Ziegler said.

Ziegler said there were sustained winds of about 30 to 35 mph with gusts of 40 mph.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag fire warning that went into effect Thursday morning, signaling possible fire danger across Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange counties through Friday night.

The strongest winds were expected overnight Thursday into Friday morning, when forecasters predict gusts between 40 and 50 mph in the valleys and coasts, and between 60 and 70 mph in the mountains.

By Thursday evening, the Woolsey fire had scorched 2,000 acres acres and was growing, triggering evacuation orders for about 20 homes on Saddlebow Road in Bell Canyon, as well as portions of Hidden Hills and all of Oak Park.

It had crossed over the Albertson Motorway, the ridgeline that separates Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, in an area called China Flat, above Cheeseboro and Palo Comado canyons, Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said.

“We think there’s potential, if the wind picks up, for it to move down the hill toward Oak Park, Calabasas, Agoura, Westlake Village,” Lorenzen said.

And late Thursday, that’s exactly what it did.

These fires come less than a year after Ventura County was devastated by the Thomas fire, which burned homes from Ventura to Montecito.

Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.


11:50 p.m.: This article was updated with the apparent loss of homes in Oak Park.

11:35 p.m.: This article was updated with information about evacuations in Oak Park.

9:15 p.m.: This article was updated with information from a news conference.

7:30 p.m.: This article was updated with new evacuations and acreage figures.

6:05 p.m.: This article was updated with information on law enforcement response to the fire and nearby shooting, and evacuation details.

4:30 p.m. This article was updated with more details on fires.

3:45 p.m.: This article was updated with the fire’s size and a freeway closure.

3:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional evacuation details.

This article was originally published at 2:45 p.m.