Perilous winds were poised to roar back early Sunday, threatening to fan wildfires that have claimed two lives, scorched 83,000 acres and forced a quarter-million people to evacuate their homes across Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
A lull in the winds Saturday gave firefighters a chance to stamp out hotspots, drop fire retardant and build fire lines around the Woolsey and Hill fires. Since Friday, the blazes torched more than 170 homes in Malibu, Westlake Village, Oak Park, Thousand Oaks, Bell Canyon, and other Ventura and Los Angeles communities.
In Westlake Village, residents choked back sobs as they returned Saturday to Oak Forest Estates, a mobile home community that lost 14 homes. The winds had died down, but the air still smelled of soot and burning plastic. Ash, twisted metal and charred pieces of wood lay in piles where homes once stood. Blackened juniper trees dotted barren landscape.
Tim Jackson, an Oak Forest resident, poked through the ashes and dirt where photos of his children had sat in the house that was now gone. He had expected the blaze to bypass his community even after the mandatory evacuation order was issued early Friday and now regretted that he and his family hadn’t taken more belongings with them.
“It was amazing how fast it went,” Jackson said of the flames.
Nearby, David Spence wandered through the wreckage in his tight-knit community, where he had lived for 20 years. His house was incinerated. His Triumph TR6, a vintage British sports car, was now a hulking skeleton. He also lost a Lexus car and motorcycle. Neighbors walked by, offering words of condolences as they held handkerchiefs to their mouths to filter out the smoky air.
The fire also tore through grand Westlake Village estates, including a 13,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style home adorned with two lion statues and palm trees dotting the rolling grounds. Mark Cassar, whose brother Sean owned the home, came to look at the damage Saturday. He recalled the family’s holiday gatherings and the home’s grandeur, including a basketball court and pool.
“A lot of memories,” he said, as he stood on broken terra cotta shingles and charred wood.
Despite Saturday’s lull, firefighters are warning residents evacuated from more than 50,000 homes not to return to the area. Santa Ana winds, gusting to as high as 60 mph in the mountains and 50 mph in coastal and valley areas, are expected to peak between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m Sunday and continue through Tuesday evening, said David Gomberg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
The upcoming three-day span of strong winds, low humidity and parched vegetation portends another round of danger, he said.
“The potential dangers would be very rapid fire spread and extreme fire behavior,” including possible fire tornadoes, he said.
Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said it was likely that the need for evacuations will be even higher Sunday, when hundreds of firefighters will resume battling the blaze.
“Don’t be lulled by a false sense of security,” he warned. “We know tomorrow Mother Nature is going to turn her fan back on.”
Authorities have not yet identified two bodies found severely burned inside a stopped vehicle. A homicide investigation is ongoing.
The Woolsey fire started near Simi Valley in a hillside area next to the old Santa Susana Field Lab and quickly spread in several directions to nearby suburban communities, jumping the 101 Freeway in three places. It is 5% contained.
Along Pacific Coast Highway in L.A. County, dozens of homes were lost Friday night, and flames licked at both sides of the famous thoroughfare.
Firefighters staged a furious battle overnight to save Pepperdine University in Malibu, where hundreds of students and staff were sheltering in place.
The destruction was also widespread in Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village, where condo complexes and homes were torched as the fire hopscotched across canyons and hillsides. Landmarks were obliterated, including Western Town at Paramount Ranch, whose sets were the backdrop for “Westworld” and countless other productions, and the historic Peter Strauss Ranch.
In Malibu, some residents stayed to defend their homes as the Woolsey fire tore through the beachside enclave.
Maxwell Korrodi’s family mansion, which sits on a ridge overlooking Pacific Coast Highway, was untouched. But he helped put out a blaze at his brother-in-law’s townhouse complex in Malibu Gardens a quarter mile down the road. The two men, Korrodi said, jumped into their neighbors’ backyards, hooked up as many hoses as possible, grabbed fire extinguishers and sprayed the homes.
Jim Williams also defended his family’s home in Malibu Park, pumping water from the backyard pool onto burning shrubs Friday night. His wife, Jillian, and their 16-year-old daughter, Ashleigh, camped out in their silver Hummer in the Zuma Beach parking lot but hoped to return to their scorched neighborhood later Saturday.
“There’s no word in the English dictionary to describe the fear we’ve felt,” Jillian Williams said. “At the same time, I feel selfish because I’m standing here and my neighbors don’t have houses anymore.”
One of them was John Ridgway, who lost his Malibu Park home of 25 years. Since early Friday, the 66-year-old media branding executive had camped out at the Zuma Beach parking lot with his Australian shepherd Rosalynn, anxiously watching the fire grow across the highway. When the winds changed direction midday, a thick, purplish-black smoke illuminated by an orange glow swept over the parking lot, bearing down on everyone there.
“It was like the gates of hell,” Ridgway recalled.
At Point Dume in Malibu, dozens of homes were leveled or smoldering. Natural gas leaks burned hot and loud like blow torches. Fire crews worked to knock down hotspots and shut off the gas supply.
Keegan Gibbs, 33, arrived Saturday morning to find his childhood home on Dume Drive destroyed. His parents stayed to defend the house from hotspots, but eventually fled when the flames grew too close. He said the fire traveled along the gully behind their house where the chaparral had not burned in decades.
“Unfortunately I lost all of our childhood memories in the house,” said Gibbs, who was evacuated with his wife and child from their Topanga home. “But we are safe. All the material possessions really don’t matter.”
One consolation was that the nearby Woodshed Recording studio, used by such musicians as U2, Coldplay, Lady Gaga and Barbra Streisand, was undamaged.
In the Malibu Lake area, Marcia Tysseling drove around her neighborhood near a small reservoir to survey the damage and check on friends. Stone walls were still standing along with chimneys. Appliances were left charred amid mangled rubble.
When fires began to threaten the neighborhood early Friday, Tysseling threw her journals and the prison outfits worn in the movie “Shawshank Redemption” into her car. Ultimately, however, she decided to stay.
On Saturday, neighbor after neighbor told her they were relieved she had survived.
“Are you OK?” asked one neighbor at the end of South Lake Shore Drive.
“Yeah, I stayed,” she said.
He gasped. “Why would you do that?”
“My house,” she said. “It’s all I got.”
Times staff writer Adam Elmahrek contributed to this report.