Firefighters begin to turn the tide on Southern California wildfires

A series of Santa Ana wind-driven wildfires has 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.


Firefighters hoped to make more progress Saturday against the wildfires burning from Ojai to Oceanside that have destroyed more than 790 structures and forced some 90,000 people to flee from their homes.

As Santa Ana winds finally died down Friday, crews were able to begin containment of some of the biggest fires. But red flag fire warnings remain in effect, and forecasters say the Santa Anas will return to Southern California on Saturday evening.

Also Saturday, Gov. Jerry Brown surveyed the devastation in Ventura, the area 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,” Brown told reporters at 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.”

Firefighters had a successful day battling flames on the southern edge of the Thomas fire, working toward the coast as well as parts of Ojai thanks to favorable wind patterns, a weakening of the winds and fire crews improving fire lines they had established, according to Bill Murphy, a spokesman for Cal Fire.


By Saturday morning, the Thomas fire had burned 148,000 acres. Firefighting efforts were hampered overnight by wind and topography, fire officials said, but the blaze was 15% contained. As a result, Murphy said, evacuations for most of the city of Ventura and Santa Paula were lifted.

Firefighters continued to encounter difficulty on the east side of the fire above Fillmore. Crews used helicopters to drop water on that portion to try to contain the fire. Firefighters also made progress on Highway 33 and the 101 Freeway on the west side of the blaze.

“This is a complex fire,” said Rich Macklin, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department. “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.”

Meteorologists advised fire officials that if Santa Ana winds return Saturday afternoon, they would push the fire toward Santa Barbara County, Sespe Wilderness and the Sespe Condor Sanctuary.

“But you have to understand, when the winds are down, the movement of the fire is very slow,” said Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Donoghue. “So right now, we’re benefiting from lower winds than what was expected.”

Firefighting efforts have cost $17 million so far, according to the Ventura County Fire Department.

In Los Angeles County, firefighters were making progress on blazes in Sylmar, Santa Clarita and Bel-Air. The Creek Fire was now 80% contained, and the Rye Fire was 65% contained.

Even as the tide began to turn, residents were beginning to come to terms with the devastation and loss from the fires.

On Friday afternoon, Jacklyn Mann, 29, sifted through the charred metal and debris that was once her house. Her brother Ben Mann, 26, and her father, Roger Mann, 60, scoured the debris.

The family is one of the first residents on their block in Ventura to return to the neighborhood. All down the windy street, houses like the Mann family’s had been destroyed by the Thomas fire.

The Manns came back with one goal in mind: to salvage any household items they could find that held sentimental value.

“I found another one!” Jacklyn shouted to her dad.

In her hand was a dusty ceramic pinch pot that her other brother, Dixon Mann, had made years ago in elementary school.

“Oh, cool. Sweet,” Roger responded.

Lined on the side of their property were small items the family had dug up that day.

Among them was Ben Mann’s swimming medals from when he was a child.

The family decided to spend the day digging through the rubble after they had earlier found a Christmas ornament that belonged to Jacklyn.

It had been hanging on their Christmas tree, which they had decorated on Monday before the fires destroyed their house.

“We didn’t want to wait,” Jacklyn said.

“It’s weird to see what survived the flames.”

In northern San Diego County, the Lilac fire had 4,100 acres burned and 105 structures destroyed along the Highway 76 corridor that stretches west from the 15 Freeway through Bonsall and Fallbrook. But officials cautioned that dry, swirling Santa Ana winds are expected to return Saturday and Sunday and could kick up embers that might start new fires.

At least 65 of the houses lost were at the Rancho Monserate Country Club, a mobile home community near where the flames leapt to life late Thursday morning. The blaze took off on a fast-paced rampage that also killed 35 horses at the storied San Luis Rey Downs thoroughbred-training facility and injured two firefighters and four civilians, including a horse trainer burned over 50% of her body.

Among those coping with their losses was Jon Stecker, who stood alongside what had been his two-story, 2,700-square foot home on Olive Hill Road in Bonsall as the sun began to set Friday.

“It’s gnarly, huh?” he said.

He lost not just his home, but two other houses on the 1.2-acre property he’s owned since 1992. He’d been at work in San Diego when the fire hit, but said he knew his home was gone because his wife had told him she saw a solid wall of burning trees across the street as she fled.

Stecker, 53, pointed to what had been his deck, now just a pile where a tiny orange flame or two stubbornly flickered. “Want a tub?” he asked, motioning at a buried bathtub, which on Thursday morning had been in a second-floor bathroom.

He said he lost a horse and a pig in the fire, but his wife had been able to get their dogs out. They also lost three vehicles, now just metal shells.

Waiting for his insurance agent, he said he’s resigned to rebuilding.

“What can you do?” he said.

Several people were hurt in the San Diego fires.

Among those injured Thursday was Martine Bellocq, a trainer at San Luis Rey Downs, who suffered second- and third-degree burns over 50% of her body as she tried to rescue six horses, according to Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers.

She was airlifted to UC San Diego Medical Center and placed in a medically induced coma, Balch said.

Bellocq was among several trainers, grooms and staff who tried to evacuate hundreds of thoroughbreds as the fire roared toward the sprawling, 200-acre, 500-stall training facility Thursday afternoon. In the rush to get horses to safety, many were simply allowed to run free once the flames began to sweep through the barns.

Many of the 35 horses killed there perished in their stalls.

Times staff writers Jaclyn Cosgrove, Hailey Branson-Potts, Joseph Serna, Sonali Kohli, Louis Sahagun, Matt Hamilton, Joy Resmovits, and Teri Figueroa and Pauline Repard of the San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.


2:35 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect Cal Fire’s revised estimated of 793 structures destroyed.

1:10 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Gov. Jerry Brown.

11:30 a.m.: This article was updated to reflect that 8,500 firefighters are battling the fires in Southern California and that the fires have burned 175,000 acres.

10:45 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the cost of fighting the Thomas fire and comment from a fire official. It also updated the number of acres burned in Ventura County and the number of structures destroyed throughout Southern California .

9:35 a.m.: This article was updated with comment about the weather’s effect on the Thomas fire’s expected movement.

8 a.m.: This article was updated with new containment numbers.

This article was originally published at 7:35 a.m.