Rachel Bailey stepped out of her Volvo SUV, walked up to the smoldering strip of rubble and stared at what little was left. Blackened mattress springs. The husk of a couch. The tile that once graced her foyer.
Home after home in her pocket of a canyon in Westlake Village was leveled by what officials say is one of the largest fires to strike Los Angeles County in more than 100 years.
“This street just got annihilated,” Bailey said, surveying what was left of their Oak Forest Mobile Estates neighborhood.
“Well, the yard’s bigger now,” quipped her partner, David Carr, standing above the exposed steel beams of the soot-covered foundation.
As fire crews boosted containment lines around the massive Woolsey fire Tuesday, the breadth of the destruction it left began to set in for many families who were allowed to return home. The inferno tore through a 97,114-acre swath of Ventura and Los Angeles counties from Bell Canyon to the Pacific Ocean, obliterating roughly 435 homes and businesses and devastating neighborhoods.
The fire has burned about 150 square miles, including about 83% of national park land in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a stunning loss of a cherished open space for Southern California.
“To put that in perspective, that is the size of Denver,” Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Deputy David Richardson said of the fire’s footprint.
At Malibu Creek State Park, the landscape was charred black beyond the parking lot, where the burned-out shell of a security vehicle sat. Although 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.”
The blaze also has destroyed power poles, toppled trees and damaged sewage and water lines, officials said. Firefighters were warned to watch out for trees and buildings that have been damaged by the fire over the last six days, some of which are beginning to weaken. An apartment building along Pacific Coast Highway collapsed early Tuesday.
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.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to proclaim an emergency, citing the loss of lives, destruction of property and widespread evacuations. They also declared a health emergency and ordered that no debris be removed without a hazardous materials investigation.
The ordinarily humdrum government proceedings were punctuated by the appearance of celebrity residents who asked for food, water, gas and shelter in the aftermath of the fire, as well as assistance rebuilding.
“I have witnessed many fires in my community and experienced the devastation … but none as catastrophic as the events that have taken place in our community these last five days and nights,” said actor Pierce Brosnan. “We beseech you to do everything in your power to save our community.”
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 stoke a small fire into a deadly inferno.
“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.”
A flare-up Tuesday morning prompted a massive response by firefighters as flames scorched a hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains. The spot fire was fanned by strong winds that pushed the flames upward toward a peak called Boney Mountain and away from communities.
“It looks scary but it’s not an imminent threat,” said Ventura County Fire Capt. Stan Ziegler.
The flare-up was burning into the scar of the 2013 Springs fire and hitting patches of rocks in the mountains above Lake Sherwood and Hidden Valley. A caravan of helicopters dropped water from Lake Sherwood onto the blaze and tankers were painting the mountain ridges with retardant.
Still, the flames were seizing on dry fuel that had not burned in 50 to 60 years, Ziegler said. The blaze sent periodic columns of smoke skyward that were visible for miles around.
Such flare-ups are expected within the wider Woolsey fire burn area, because there are untouched pockets of brush scattered inside the fire’s boundary.
Back in Westlake Village, Bailey rummaged through the remnants 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. Carr’s collection of vintage surfboards was now melted into a pile of fiberglass. His truck was a burned out husk of metal. Six bikes and his scuba gear, all gone.
So much was lost, some of it irreplaceable.
Years of love letters Bailey had written to Carr, a man she had known since she was 13 and with whom she reconnected later in life, gone with the house.
They moved into the home in February and had initially struggled to get fire insurance. They loved the neighborhood, a secluded cluster of homes in a canyon ensconced by dozens of oak trees, giving shade and privacy.
“It was the most magical street — so much shade. The treehouse was right here,” she said, pointing to a charred oak.
“We lost everything,” she repeated, like a grim refrain.
“I loved this house,” Carr said, crying. Bailey embraced him. Carr apologized, feeling guilty that he wasn’t here to save the house.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I loved this house.”
Bailey comforted him.
“We’ll rebuild,” she said. “We’ll do it again.”