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Firefighters worry as Santa Ana winds threaten to feed Woolsey blaze in Ventura and L.A. counties

A forecast that includes several days of gusting Santa Ana winds has fire officials worried about the possible spread of the 85,500-acre Woolsey fire straddling Ventura and Los Angeles counties, officials said Sunday.

The blaze, which has claimed two lives and forced more than 250,000 people from Malibu to Thousand Oaks to evacuate, was 15% contained as of Sunday night.

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But expected wind gusts of 40 mph or stronger over the next several days have officials concerned the fire could spread in a quick and unprecedented fashion, and they urged residents who were sheltering in place to evacuate immediately.

“Maybe 10 or 20 years ago you stayed in your homes when there was a fire and you were able to protect them,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said. “We’re entering a new normal. Things are not the way they were 10 years ago.”

Shortly after 5 p.m. Sunday, a mandatory evacuation was issued for the entire city of Calabasas at the western end of the San Fernando Valley near the Ventura County line, as the winds continued to kick up.

The fire has destroyed more than 177 buildings, and about 57,000 structures are still threatened, officials said. But footage from television helicopters seemed to show much more widespread property damage, and Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby acknowledged the number of structures lost will increase once damage-assessment teams can better survey the area.

Osby and other fire officials remained focused on the potential for wind gusts to suddenly change the direction and behavior of the fire. Throughout the day, Osby said, firefighters had to battle flare-ups near Bell Canyon and the Pacific Coast Highway, and although they were able to keep spot fires from growing too large, there is still a fear that a rogue ember could get beyond containment lines.

Sources: National Weather Service, Cal Fire, Nextzen, OpenStreetMap
Sources: National Weather Service, Cal Fire, Nextzen, OpenStreetMap (Los Angeles Times)

The coming wind gusts could also severely reduce the effectiveness of aerial water and retardant drops, leaving firefighters to battle the flames solely from the ground, officials said.

Several parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties — including Malibu, Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, Hidden Hills, and sections of West Hills, Monte Nido, Gated Oaks and Topanga — remained under voluntary or mandatory evacuation order Sunday, officials said.

Fire officials repeatedly emphasized that residents who had insisted on sheltering in place, specifically those in Topanga Canyon, needed to evacuate immediately. Their presence, officials said, was interfering with firefighter operations.

Evacuation orders in some parts of Ventura County, including Camarillo Springs and sections of Newbury Park, have been lifted, said Sgt. Eric Buschow, a Ventura County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. Homes were also being threatened early Sunday in the West Hills neighborhood at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley.

Wildfires across California have scorched nearly 200,000 acres and killed 31 people in total in recent days, according to fire officials. The Camp fire in Butte County has left at least 29people dead and all but destroyed the city of Paradise.

With destructive fires burning in both the northern and southern parts of the state, Gov. Jerry Brown requested a presidential disaster declaration early Sunday.

“We have the best firefighters and first responders in the country working in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable. We’re putting everything we’ve got into the fight against these fires, and this request ensures communities on the front lines get additional federal aid,” Brown said in a statement. “To those who have lost friends and family members, homes and businesses, know that the entire state is with you. As Californians, we are strong and resilient, and together we will recover.”

Two fatalities were reported Friday afternoon in the 33000 block of Mulholland Highway in Malibu, according to L.A. County sheriff’s officials. The bodies of two people were “severely burned inside of a stopped vehicle located on a long residential driveway,” authorities said. On Sunday, investigators said they believed the driver had become disoriented while trying to flee the fire and the vehicle was overtaken by flames.

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Malibu City Councilman Jefferson Wagner also suffered serious injuries while trying to protect his home from the fire, said another city councilman, Skylar Peak.

Wagner was hospitalized with injuries related to smoke inhalation sometime Friday after he ignored an evacuation order and tried to fend off flames at a house he owned on Old Chimney Road in in Latigo Canyon, Peak said.

Peak said Wagner’s wife told him late Saturday night that the well-known surf shop owner was in an intensive care unit at a hospital, but he is expected to survive. Wagner’s house was destroyed, Peak said.

Several firefighters have also suffered minor injuries, Osby said.

On Sunday morning, Pepperdine University announced it would cancel classes and events on its Malibu and Calabasas campuses through Nov. 26. About 3,600 students have been sheltering in place at the university’s beachside campus, officials said.

From Saturday night into Sunday morning, firefighters were able to increase containment and battle hot spots flaring up in several areas, Osby said.

But with strong wind gusts forecast through Tuesday, Osby said he is concerned that the fire could prove much more dangerous in the days ahead.

“There’s a lot of fuel that has not burned,” Osby said, repeating others’ warnings to evacuate. “Your home can be rebuilt. We can’t bring your life back.”

On Sunday evening, a standing-room only crowd of more than 300, mostly people who had to abandon their homes, packed an auditorium at Taft Charter High School in Woodland Hills.

The mood was polite, even grateful — with a prolonged standing ovation for the firefighters and police officers battling to save their homes.

But the weariness was obvious. After several days almost everyone was tired of staying in hotels, bunking in tight quarters with relatives or simply sleeping in their cars wherever they can find a safe place to park.

A groan went up about 40 minutes into the meeting when fire officials announced a mandatory evacuation of Calabasas.

Frankie Palmer, of Malibu, stood in the back of the room surveying the packed auditorium.

She fled her Point Dume home with her family and their two dogs, but she knows she’s luckier than so many of the people sitting in front of her.

Her house is safe and she’s been able to stay, relatively comfortably, with nearby family.

“We’re so fortunate that we’re safe and we don’t have to worry about hotel bills,” Palmer said, “I know not everyone has been so lucky.”

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Early Sunday afternoon, L.A. County Fire Engineer Scott Pishe and other firefighters stood guard outside several multimillion-dollar homes on Malibu Crest Drive as air tankers and helicopters bombarded the slopes of Malibu Canyon with fire retardant and water.

Earlier in the day, flames had tried to make a run into a chute formed by the canyon, but the air attack had succeeded in keeping the fire at bay.

“If it had gotten into that chute, we would've been in trouble,” Pishe said. “All of that is because of the birds. The aircraft assault has been nonstop.”

In Bell Canyon, fire crews raced through the intersection of Bell Canyon Road and Valley Circle late Sunday morning to stamp out hot spots that flared up at the base of the road as reinvigorated Santa Ana winds began to blow.

A crowd of about 30 people stood at the corner, their cellphones out recording video and taking photos as firefighters hiked up the hillside beneath a cloud of thick smoke.

The crews, shouting instructions above the roar of a helicopter and sirens, trained their hoses on a palm tree as it erupted in flames. Bone-dry brush quickly caught fire like tinder, setting off a front of flames that inched toward a home at the top of a ridge.

Like an evil game of whack-a-mole, firefighters would extinguish one hot spot only to have another ignite.

Richard Levy, 62, president of the Bell Canyon community services district, mingled with other residents observing the battle. He estimated that about 35 houses had burned in his neighborhood.

“I took a couple who had just moved in in June to see their house,” he said. “A 5,600-square-foot house, and there was nothing left. It was traumatic for them. The wife cried.”

When the wildfire had first arrived in the neighborhood, Levy said he and the president of the local homeowners association had driven around and tried to put out fires on their own with garden hoses and whatever else was available. He recalled saving one house but then having to watch helplessly as the house next door ignited.

As he spoke, the crowd of onlookers erupted in cheers and applause as a helicopter dropped water on the ridge above.

Irene Shaffa, who lives across the street from Levy, said she has been staying at her business’ warehouse in Chatsworth with some neighbors since evacuating.

“We come back every day,” she said. “We have nowhere to go.”

Everyone who had gathered, she said, was hoping to get down the road to check on their home.

Shane Clark walked through the wreckage of his Bell Canyon home on Hitching Post Lane Sunday afternoon and sifted through the ash to salvage what he could. His mother, Joline Clark, stood and watched from the driveway as he scoured the space where the house used to stand.

Clark turned around, triumphant, and held up a large sword in the rubble with “winter is coming” engraved on the hilt. A “Game of Thrones” fan, he was happy to find a couple of pieces of memorabilia in the wreckage.

“I feel gratitude that the firefighters saved as much as they could,” he said. “I knew the house was gone. It’s certainly sad, but we will be able to rebuild.”

By Sunday afternoon, Zuma Beach in Malibu had become something of a way station for Malibu residents who had been forced to evacuate their homes but didn’t want to stray too far in the hopes that an evacuation order might be lifted.

About 8 a.m., Pam Whitman was walking her dog Trapper along the sands with a mask covering her face and a wooden walking stick in her right hand.

“We wanted to be close to home. We have evacuated to Zuma before,” said Whitman, a Realtor who has lived in Malibu for 40 years.

Whitman said she was worried about the dozens of parakeets her husband has raised in their home. The recreational vehicle she has been staying in was running low on gas, but Whitman said she doesn’t want to drive out of the area as authorities will deny reentry to anyone in an evacuation zone.

The area had become a dead zone for cellphone service, and most people were without power as of Sunday morning. Nearby, the charred husks of several homes and cars could be seen along Merritt Drive above Malibu High School. One of the few things that remained intact was a metal sign reading “Welcome.”

For some, battling the frustration of fighting a persistent fire on difficult-to-navigate terrain was setting in. About 10:30 a.m., several Long Beach firefighters could be seen lying in the grass near the driveway of a home that had been engulfed in flames only hours earlier.

Working with a fire crew from San Gabriel, they had snuffed out the blaze, but now one of their trucks had a flat tire. One firefighter with a bushy mustache and a Long Beach State hat was slurping down an energy drink as he looked out at the smoldering canyon.

"What day is it even?” he asked a colleague.

9:25 p.m.: This story was updated with new fire figures.

6:20 p.m.: This story was updated with new information from a town hall meeting in Woodland Hills.

5:50 p.m.: This story was updated with new information from fire officials.

4:05 p.m.: This story was updated with additional comments from residents in the fire zone.

3:10 p.m.: This story was updated with more information from Malibu.

12:35 p.m.: This story was updated with additional reporting from Malibu.

11:30 a.m.: This story was updated with additional information about evacuations, injuries suffered by a Malibu city councilman and potential looting in evacuation areas.

This story first published at 10:35 a.m.

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