Firefighters on Saturday got a respite from destructive Santa Ana winds to take stock of the Woolsey fire, which has burned 83,000 acres, claimed two lives, destroyed more than a hundred homes and forced 260,000 people to evacuate across a wide swath of Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
With the winds expected to return by Sunday, fire officials said they spent Saturday assessing the damage and improving defenses.
Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said aircraft made fire retardant drops in an effort to bolster fire lines and keep flames from spreading. More than 170 homes have been destroyed but fire damage assessment teams are still out collecting information. Many expect the losses to be in the hundreds.
Authorities stressed that residents need to stay out of the massive evacuation zone and urged the public not to let its guard down.
“Don’t be lulled by a false sense of security,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said. Red flag warnings were issued for Sunday morning through Tuesday, with wind gusts up to 50 mph expected along the coast and the valleys, and up to 60 mph winds forecast for mountain areas.
The fire spread in several directions, burning homes in Malibu, Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks while threatening parts of Simi Valley, West Hills and numerous Ventura County communities. The fire, which is only 5% contained, has doubled in size since Friday afternoon.
Firefighters staged a furious battle overnight to save Pepperdine University in Malibu, where hundreds of students and staff were sheltering in place.
“We have fuels that are in critical drought state right now,” Osby told reporters at a Saturday news conference. “This is the sixth year of … drought in this region. Our firefighters have been facing some extreme, tough fire conditions that they said that they’ve never seen in their lives.”
The all-out attack by air and ground resources appears to have prevented any major losses at Pepperdine, though some outbuildings may have been damaged, the university said. It was a tense night, with those on campus taking refuge in several buildings, including the library, as the firefight unfolded.
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 individuals were “severely burned inside of a stopped vehicle located on a long residential driveway,” authorities said.
Local officials pleaded with residents to remain vigilant and heed evacuation orders so as not to hamper the firefighters’ work.
“We’ve had a lot of tragedy in our community. We don’t want any more,” said Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, whose district includes the Borderline Bar and Grill, where 12 people were slain in a mass shooting Wednesday night. “We do not want any more lives lost, so please listen when they tell you to evacuate.”
Elsewhere in Malibu, the fire invaded picturesque canyons, swallowing house after house. It reached the Pacific Ocean in several places, destroying a yet-uncounted number of beach homes.
Point Dume was in ashes Saturday afternoon. Dozens of homes were leveled or smoldering. Natural gas leaks burned hot and loud like blow torches. Fire crews worked to knock down hot spots and shut off the gas supply.
Keegan Gibbs, 33, arrived Saturday morning to find the home he grew up in on Dume Drive destroyed. His parents stayed to defend the house from hot spots, 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.
“Malibu is a really small community and gets a bad rap for being this kind of elitist, snobby place, and it’s exactly the opposite,” Gibbs said. “It’s built off the shoulders of hard-working blue-collar families, and that’s really going to show when we rebuild this place. It’s a real community; it isn’t something people buy into. All my friends who stayed and fought for their houses — some were successes, and some weren’t.”
One silver lining was that the Woodshed Recording studio on the back of the lot was not damaged and neither was his mother’s garden. Famous musicians such as U2, Coldplay, Lady Gaga and Barbra Streisand have recorded there, according to the studio’s website.
Gibbs was evacuated from his home Topanga, where he lives with his wife and child. He said he plans to spend the night at the Woodshed studio next to the remnants of his childhood home.
“It’s definitely a consolation,” he said. “Unfortunately I lost all of our childhood memories in the house. But we are safe. All the material possessions really don’t matter.”
In Point Dume, Chaplain Brian Laspada with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department counted at least 20 homes that were destroyed on Wandermere Road alone. Laspada lives in the neighborhood and stayed home Friday night to spray hotspots with a garden hose.
“This was one torrential [fire] — it hit so many structures,” Laspada said. He was on site to help grieving families but said his job Saturday was just help put out more hotspots.
“It’s more or less just helping people,” he said. “We’ve been praying with people, but not as much counseling. They are still in shock are not ready to talk yet.”
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. The blackened remains of Kristy’s Roadhouse restaurant in Agoura Hills were still smoldering Saturday morning; a statue of Buddha and a badly damaged mailbox were among the few things standing.
On Saturday, resident David Spence walked through the wreckage of his home in Oak Forest Estates, a mobile home park nestled between the two hillsides in Westlake Village.
He pointed to his Triumph TR6, a vintage British sports car that was now a hulking skeleton: “I loved that car. It was a beauty.” He also lost a Lexus and a motorcycle.
His home burned to the ground in the tight-knight community, where he had lived for 20 years.
“You want to know a funny story, it was in escrow,” he said. “I was selling it.”
Officials said they had been unable to tally the number of homes lost, but sheriff’s officials in Ventura County put the number there at 50 or more. They said damage assessment teams would begin their work later Saturday.
Parks, the Ventura County supervisor, thanked fire officials for working through the night to prevent further losses.
“Entire neighborhoods have been saved because of these firefighters taking really tough stands and beating back the flames,” she said.
Some were saved with the help of residents who refused to evacuate.
“If this was going to happen, I didn’t want to just sit in a hotel worrying,” said Maxwell Korrodi, 26, who on Friday helped put out flames spreading through his brother-in-law’s townhome complex in Malibu Gardens.
He and his brother-in-law, Jason Biheller, jumped into neighbors’ backyards, hooking up as many hoses as possible. They smashed glass and grabbed fire extinguishers, spraying with abandon. By their estimate, they saved a whole block.
“Our backyard was on fire and we decided we might as well do something about it,” Biheller said.
The Woolsey fire was fueled by intense winds that weakened Saturday morning. But the Santa Ana winds are forecast to return Sunday.
“We know Mother Nature has given us a little reprieve today,” said Lorenzen, the Ventura County fire chief. “That gives us some opportunities, but I need everybody to remain vigilant.”
At times Friday, heavy smoke and wind gusts as high as 50 mph grounded the helicopters and tankers that had been dispatched to drop water and retardant on the fire.
Weary firefighters also struggled with a shortage of equipment. Some of the crews, trucks and other gear that would normally come to Southern California to join the firefight were tied up at the Camp fire in Butte County, Osby said.
“We still have outstanding orders of hundreds of vehicles,” he said.
The Woolsey fire started Thursday afternoon near Simi Valley in a hillside area next to the old Santa Susana Field Lab and quickly spread to nearby suburban communities.
Its terrifying speed left some residents little time to flee.
Laurita Gallagher and her family kept watch over the fire’s progress overnight Thursday, their belongings packed and ready to go in case they needed to evacuate. Her son, 24-year-old Payson, didn’t sleep.
By 5:30 a.m., their homeowners association warned the blaze was spreading fast. Soon after, deep-orange flames were chewing through timber yards away from her home. Gallagher, 60, screamed at her family that it was time to leave.
Before they could get into their cars, flames were licking their driveway and burning branches hit the caravan’s hoods as they drove out.
“It happened so quickly,” Gallagher said. “There were embers flying everywhere — our eyes were burning, and we couldn’t keep them open. … The intensity of the heat on our faces and body was almost blistering.”
Sheriff’s officials said they had deployed hundreds of deputies to protect property after reports of looting. Three people were arrested in the mansion-lined neighborhood of North Ranch, according to Ventura County Sgt. Eric Buschow, including two who were taken into custody after a short car chase.
“If you come here with the intent of taking advantage of the situation, we will arrest you and you will go to jail,” Buschow said.
The Woolsey fire and the nearby Hill fire, which burned about 6,000 acres in the Santa Rosa Valley area, prompted Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency on behalf of Gov. Jerry Brown, who was traveling out of state.
Newsom also sent a request to federal officials and President Trump for assistance to support communities affected by the fire.
Trump approved a state-of-emergency declaration but on Saturday once again attacked California, claiming erroneously that poor forest management policies caused the fires, even though the Woolsey fire didn’t occur in a forest.
“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!” Trump wrote.
Trump has threatened to cut off funding over fire policy before, but has never been specific. California officials have rejected his criticism and said he’s playing politics.
Environmentalists believe Trump is trying to use fire prevention as an excuse to raid California’s forests.
They contend he is making a move to open ecologically sensitive public land for timber production, as well as for potential solar, wind, broadband infrastructure, mining, off-road vehicles and grazing uses.
Trump’s comments come during a week in which fires wrought destruction up and down the state, with more than 6,000 structures lost and at least nine dead in Paradise, north of San Francisco, and massive losses in Southern California.
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. At one point, a man on the south side of the road valiantly doused hot spots. The fire burned the hillside while 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 and Teresa Andersen didn’t want to leave their home in Malibu’s Point Dume Club. They watered down the roof, sprayed the plants and held off evacuating as long as they could.
But Dresser saw the flames from the roof of their mobile home. They were shooting “all over.” They shut off the gas at their 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.”
“This fire is like Armageddon,” Dresser said. “It’s out of control.”
Times staff writer Jeanette Marantos contributed to this report.