Surreal scenes unfold as a fire ‘like Armageddon’ barrels toward West Hills

A home is consumed by the Woolsey fire along Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.
A home is consumed by the Woolsey fire along Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

At Zuma Beach, the Pacific Ocean was obscured by smoke. Horses, dogs and Southern Californians displaced by raging wildfires Friday sought refuge on the sand. The dress code called for protective face masks, not wetsuits.

In Thousand Oaks, many of those still reeling from Wednesday’s mass shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill fled their homes with whatever they could grab on their way to safety.

Crowded shelters turned away panicky evacuees for lack of space. Freeways were closed. Pepperdine University students awoke to texts ordering them to shelter in place.


People like Shirley Hertel turned on television sets in horror and watched the homes they’d fled catch fire.

“It was so surreal,” the Thousand Oaks resident said, shaken. “I left thinking everything would be OK. You don’t think your house will burn down.”

Fire officials said that more than 150 homes had been destroyed in Southern California, casualties of the Hill and Woolsey fires, blazes that barreled into Malibu and torched a destructive path through Oak Park, Thousand Oaks, Bell Canyon and other Ventura County communities.

By Friday night, wildfire was racing toward West Hills, a neighborhood at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley. At rush hour, an unknown number of homes were ablaze.

Around a quarter of a million people were under evacuation orders Friday — the entire city of Malibu; Calabasas, Agoura and Hidden Hills; the Topanga Canyon area and three-quarters of Thousand Oaks. More than 40,000 acres had burned. Two thousand firefighters were deployed along with more than 600 law enforcement personnel.


Live updates: Woolsey, Camp and Hill fires scorch thousands of acres »

Fire jumped the 101 Freeway in three places, said Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby during an afternoon news conference, as he urged people to obey evacuation orders.

At times throughout the day, the dangerous job of firefighting was complicated further by residents who refused to leave their homes, he said. “I can only imagine the impact of being asked to leave your home. But we’re doing it for your safety.”

Arita Kronska slept through alerts that her Westlake Village neighborhood had been placed under a mandatory evacuation order. The 62-year-old only found out when her daughter called, worried, about 5 a.m.

“I’ve lived here since 1988,” she said as she stood in front of a temporary shelter in Thousand Oaks, her dog, Yoda, at her side. “This is the first time I’ve seen a fire like this.”

As she pondered what to bring to the shelter Friday morning, she eventually decided on just two things she could not live without: her passport and Yoda.


Driving through her neighborhood in the predawn darkness, the streets were eerily quiet.

“Nobody was there anymore,” she said. “It was a very strange feeling…. No people. No driving…. Like in those movies about the apocalypse.”

Kronska had sought refuge at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, where just 30 hours or so earlier family members had gathered to find out whether their loved ones had been murdered by a black-clad gunman.

So many tears shed in such a short time span in the low-slung tan building.

Judy Goodman fled to the center in the Friday morning darkness, too. At 1 a.m., she heard a loud crash in the living room of her Westlake Hills home. The winds were so fierce that a tree had crashed through her roof, sending shards of glass flying.

Then came the loud pounding at her front door. It was the police, telling her to leave. The fire was coming close. She grabbed socks, family photos and her dog and headed to the teen center.

“It’s just one thing after another,” she said. “I was crying all day yesterday because of the shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill, and now this happens.”

She was grateful for a safe place to rest but was distraught when she heard that her refuge was the same place that families of the Borderline victims found out their loved ones were dead.


“I can’t believe it,” she said.

Surreal scenes unfold as a fire ‘like Armageddon’ barrels toward West Hills

Debbie Sneed-Barnett and Mike Barnett live one freeway exit away from Borderline Bar and Grill. At least, they thought they still did when the sun rose Friday.

The couple and their three boys — ages 4, 5 and 11 — had spent the night in their minivan in the parking lot of the Woolsey fire evacuation center at Pierce College. Their two dogs and their cat crammed in along with them.

They’d left their home in Thousand Oaks at 3:30 a.m. and grabbed breakfast at Denny’s. It was the family’s first evacuation, and everyone was fighting a cold. Before they fled, Sneed-Barnett had grabbed her son’s breathing machine and her parents’ wedding photos.

The 37-year-old still hadn’t processed the fact that she may lose her home.

“I kind of haven’t thought of what comes next,” she said, resting her hand protectively on 5-year-old Kaden’s shoulder. “If I do that, I’ll cry, and I have to stay strong for them.”

Fire officials had set up a command post not far from the teen center. Around noon Friday, Ventura County Fire Capt. Bob Schuett returned to the command post, famished and covered in soot.


He’s spent the previous 12 hours battling the Woolsey fire in a residential area just north of the 101. His team had been responsible for protecting more than 60 homes on Hillcrest and Almon drives in Thousand Oaks, where power lines had crashed to the ground and ruptured gas lines flared.

They’d lost seven homes. The rest were safe — for the time being. So many homes were on fire at once that Schuett’s department couldn’t give any one its full attention. Firefighters would partially suppress the flames at one home, just enough to keep them from spreading, and then move on.

“With all that wind and heat, it was like a blast furnace,” he said as he stood in line for tacos. “We may have some flare-ups at those homes later. We’ll be out here for a while, picking up what we might have left a few hours ago.”

But as the day progressed, the Woolsey fire worsened. It had started out at about 14,000 acres in the morning. By late afternoon it had more than doubled.

Along Pacific Coast Highway, at least half a dozen homes were burning in the Point Dume area. Flames licked at both sides of the famous thoroughfare. A man on the south side of the road valiantly doused hot spots. Fire lit the hillside, sending violent pops crackling through the air.

Many of those sheltering at Zuma Beach live on Point Dume. On Friday, one resident renamed the enclave; on this day, it was “Point Doom.”


Charlie Dresser lives in Malibu’s Point Dume Club with Teresa Andersen. They wanted to protect their home. They didn’t want to leave it. So they watered down the roof, sprayed the plants and held off evacuating as long as they could.

But Dresser saw the flames. He was on the roof. They were shooting “all over.” He shut off the gas at his mobile home and a few nearby. And left.

“It just got to be the right time to get out,” he said. “I don’t think I want to be that close to the fire right now.”

They left Point Dume at 1:30 p.m and sought refuge on Zuma Beach. By 7 p.m, they were still there. They brought tents to spend the night.

The parking lots were filled with dozens of cars. People walked hand in hand down the boardwalk, wearing masks. Earlier, three little boys were playing in the sand — one burying himself and the other two digging holes.

“This fire is like Armageddon,” Dresser said. “It’s out of control.”

But there was a plus side on this terrifying night.

“Even if that whole hillside goes on fire, we’ll still be safe here,” Dresser said. “We’ve got the ocean.”


Times staff writers Benjamin Oreskes, Ruben Vives, Laura Newberry, Howard Blume, Alene Tchekmedyian, Laura J. Nelson, Ben Poston and Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this report.