THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Firefighters hoped a narrow window of calm on Saturday would give them a chance to block Southern California wildfires that have marched on an inexorable path of destruction toward the sea.
Winds that drove the flames through bone-dry hills and canyons north and west of downtown Los Angeles were expected to die down until Sunday, when they would build again to 35 mph with even higher gusts, forecasters predicted.
In less than two days, the Hill and Woolsey fires had destroyed more than 150 homes and prompted evacuation orders for more than 250,000 people, fire officials said.
The lull Saturday would give firefighters a chance to control the edges of the blaze and to swap fire crews, replacing firefighters who had worked for two days without rest, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.
But with the winds returning, it’s likely more homes would be lost, Osby warned. “There’s not going to be any relief in this firefight,” he said.
By late Friday night, the smaller Hill fire’s advance had halted, but the Woolsey fire continued to surge. In a matter of hours it doubled in size — turning well over 54 square miles (141 square kilometers) into ash and fields of glowing red embers.
The two fires erupted on Thursday as much of the state found itself under red flag warnings of extreme fire danger because of dry weather and blowing winds.
In Northern California, a wildfire incinerated most of the town of Paradise, population 30,000. Nine people died — some in their cars as they tried to flee the racing flames. The state’s most destructive fire in at least a century had grown Friday to nearly 140 square miles (362 square kilometers) and had destroyed more than 6,700 structures, almost all of them homes.
President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration providing federal funds to help firefighters battling the blaze in Butte County northeast of San Francisco and the southern wildfires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
In the south, flames leapt and raged from Thousand Oaks south through the northwestern San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles and appeared headed inexorably toward the Pacific Ocean.
Thousand Oaks already was reeling from a gunman’s slaughter of a dozen people at a local bar only days earlier when it found itself under siege from the fire, which raged on both sides of the city and shut down part of the main freeway into town.
“It’s devastating. It’s like ‘welcome to hell,’ ” resident Cynthia Ball said about the dual disasters while she was outside the teen center serving as a shelter for evacuees. “I don’t even know what to say. It’s like we’re all walking around kind of in a trance.”
Three-quarters of the city of 130,000 was under evacuation orders — and that likely included people affected by the shooting, Thousand Oaks Mayor Andy Fox said.
The entire coastal enclave of Malibu also was under evacuation orders, with Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian West and Guillermo del Toro among numerous celebrities forced to abandon their homes. The Woolsey blaze also destroyed the home of “Dr. Strange” director Scott Derrickson and the historic Paramount Ranch where HBO’s “Westworld” and many other shows have been filmed.
But the flames didn’t discriminate, burning everything from mobile homes to mansions. The fire spread so fast and so furiously that hard-pressed firefighters couldn’t be everywhere at once.
Residents took matters into their own hands. Televised news reports showed people trying to save a mansion by hurling buckets of water from a swimming pool onto burning brush over a fence. In Westlake Village, two men with shovels struggled to dig a firebreak in front of a line of burning brush.
Firefighters pleaded with people to heed mandatory evacuation orders. Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said some firefighters were “literally pulling people out of burning homes.”
“Even though the wind has died down, stay on guard,” he urged. “We’re in the seventh year of a drought. Our weather conditions out there, and our fuel conditions are absolutely right for fire … when we ask you to leave, please leave early.”
In West Hills, David Fink decided to stay and watch his house. He was caught by surprise when sparks and embers from the furiously burning foothills above him began igniting all around the San Fernando Valley neighborhood.
“It was 10 minutes, it was some little bit of embers, and things like that and then it just went wild and exploded, from ridge to ridge and then all the way around here…we were surrounded,” Fink told KABC-TV.
“The wind came up and it was just raining (embers) and I was just burning on my arms,” he said.
He used a garden hose to douse most of the embers. But by nightfall several homes had burned and authorities had ordered an evacuation.
At the Vallecito mobile home park for seniors in Newbury Park, the fire came so quickly that residents had no time to gather medications and documents. With flames bearing down, firefighters carried people from homes and put them in empty seats of their neighbors’ cars, said Carol Napoli, 74.
Napoli left with her friend, the friend’s son and her mother who is in her 90s and had to leave behind her oxygen tank.
“We drove through flames to get out. They had us in like a caravan,” Napoli said. “My girlfriend was driving. She said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this …’ Her son said, ‘Mom you have to, you have to drive through the flames.’ “
Rich McMillen, 72, had put a few belongings in his car when he noticed smoke picking up and saw flames in the distance. By the time a cellphone alert told him to evacuate, the flames were nearly upon the trailer park, burning on a hillside.
“You could feel the heat from the flames,” said McMillen, who returned Friday and found his home intact but stinking of smoke.
Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Amanda Lee Myers and John Antczak in Los Angeles and Christopher Weber in Thousand Oaks contributed to this story.