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Firefighters grapple to get massive Woolsey fire under control amid strong winds in Los Angeles

A flare-up of the Woolsey fire prompted a massive response by firefighters Tuesday as flames scorched a hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains, proof that crews have a ways to go to get a handle on what officials say is one of the largest fires to strike Los Angeles County in more than 100 years.

The spot fire, which has charred more than 50 acres of dense brush, broke out around 9:15 a.m. and was fanned by strong winds that pushed the flames upward toward a peak called Boney Mountain and away from nearby communities.

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Large clouds of gray smoke could be seen for miles as crews dropped fire retardant and water on the blaze. A ribbon of magenta retardant was visible on the mountains from Hidden Valley. Mandatory evacuations remain in effect in the area south of Potrero Road for Lake Sherwood and Hidden Valley.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said. “We still have some incredibly tough conditions ahead of us.”

However, officials said progress is being made on containment of the blaze — which was boosted to 35% by Tuesday — mostly in the northern region of the fire. The conflagration has burned about 150 square miles of land.

“To put that in perspective, that is the size of Denver, Colorado,” Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Deputy David Richardson said.

The inferno, which broke out Thursday, quickly tore through a swath of Ventura and Los Angeles counties from Bell Canyon to the Pacific Ocean, obliterating roughly 435 homes and businesses in its path and devastating neighborhoods. Crews that have surveyed about 18% of the 96,314-acre burn area confirmed 150 structures have been destroyed, but that number is expected to grow.

“It’s going to take several more days to get a complete, accurate account of structures lost,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

At Malibu Creek State Park, the landscape was charred black beyond the parking lot, where the burned-out shell of a security vehicle sat. While the campground remained largely untouched, the buildings in the back of the park are gone, as is much of the area that formed the backdrop for shows such as “MASH.”

Rachel Bailey and her partner, David Carr, returned to their street in Oak Forest Mobile Estates in Westlake Village from a vacation in Mexico on Tuesday to survey what was left of their four-bedroom home. All that remained in the pile of rubble were charred appliances, some mattresses and the blackened metal frames of a couch and patio chair. Home after home in Bailey’s pocket of the canyon had been leveled.

“We lost everything,” she said. “This street just got annihilated.”

Bailey rummaged through the ashes and found a metal case that once held colored pencils, along with a ceramic piggy bank. Burned pages of a “Harry Potter” book were scattered about.

But so much more had been lost.

Carr, a lifeguard, lost his collection of vintage surfboards, which had been reduced to a pile of fiberglass. His truck was a burned-out husk of metal. Six bikes and his scuba gear were all gone.

For Bailey, it was the love letters to Carr, a man she has known since she was 13 and with whom she reconnected later in life. The letters were now gone, along with the rest of the house.

In addition to the fire-ravaged structures, the blaze also has destroyed power poles, toppled trees and damaged sewage and water lines, officials said.

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Several of the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District’s facilities were damaged, including a composting facility and a filtration plant in Westlake. Power outages affected the entire service area, but water district staff called on backup power and portable emergency generators to keep critical pumps running for customers and firefighters, water district spokesman Mike McNutt said.

Amid the devastation, firefighters were busy Tuesday grappling with a second consecutive day of red flag conditions, which signify a powerful mix of heat, dry air and winds that could explode a small fire into a deadly inferno. Fire crews had prepared for the possibility of flare-ups and new blazes igniting near the existing Woolsey fire footprint, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Division Chief Chris Anthony.

If an ember flies across fire lines into dense brush while the winds are blowing and humidity is hovering around 8% in the area, it is nearly a certainty a fire will ignite, Anthony said. That’s what crews suspect happened with the flare-up near Lake Sherwood.

The fire quickly chewed through dry, dense brush in steep, rugged terrain. Since fire crews already were nearby, they were able to respond quickly to the latest blaze, Anthony said.

“It’s critically dry with incredibly strong winds, so that really puts us back into a day where we could see rapid fire spread as a result of any new fires or flare-ups,” he said.

Windy conditions are expected to last until late Wednesday, bringing northeast winds from 25 to 40 mph. Gusts are expected to peak at 55 mph Tuesday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.

Tuesday’s flare-up is burning west toward an area that was scorched in the 2013 Springs fire. That will help firefighters, Lorenzen said, because the new growth will be younger and easier to control.

A plane drops retardant on the Woolsey fire burning above Lake Sherwood.
A plane drops retardant on the Woolsey fire burning above Lake Sherwood. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The blaze has already killed at least two people, authorities said.

A couple whose charred bodies were found in a vehicle in a driveway in Malibu on Friday probably died trying to escape the flames, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Guillermo Morales said Monday.

Investigators are still trying to identify the car’s driver and passenger, both of whom were burned beyond recognition, Morales said. Investigators don’t think the two lived at the home on Mulholland Highway near where their bodies were found. The home’s residents “have been accounted for,” Morales said.

“This driveway looks like a small road. It’s not like a normal driveway, and the whole landscape around there is burned to a crisp. We think they were probably overcome by the flames,” Morales said.

Over the last month, firefighters from across California have battled more than 500 fires. Those blazes have burned more than 225,000 acres in the last week, according to Cal Fire officials.

The continued battle in Los Angeles and Ventura counties comes as officials prepare for what is expected to be a devastating fire season in the state. In Northern California, the Camp fire has charred 125,000 acres in Butte County and killed at least 42 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in state history.

“These conditions are really extreme,” Anthony said. “There have been times that I think it can’t get any worse. That’s what I thought last year, but it is. We’re shattering record after record and those aren’t records you want to break.”

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Los Angeles Times staff writers Javier Panzar and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

1:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from Westlake Village.

12:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about the flare-up and other details.

This article was originally published at 11 a.m.

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