80,000 Acres Torched in Ventura County, CA by Wildfires

Wildfires leave 13 dead, destroy 780 homes; 80,000 acres torched in Ventura County; Fire burns 6 homes, hurts 2 firefighters in Simi, Moorpark.

Raging brush fires, fueled by Santa Ana winds and summerlike temperatures, marched across Ventura County on Sunday, torching 105,000 acres, destroying six homes and blackening skies for miles around.

The largest blaze, at 80,000 acres, destroyed the homes and damaged eight others in the cities of Moorpark and Simi Valley. The only injuries reported were to two firefighters involved in an accident involving cactus. A smaller, 25,000-acre fire threatened homes in Piru and Fillmore.

The cause of the Simi fire was still under investigation, said Mike Davidson, battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry's Tulare unit.

The Simi blaze cut a thin path through the cities of Moorpark and Simi Valley, said Joe Luna, Ventura County Fire Protection District spokesman.

Officials did not call for evacuations. Some residents chose to leave, carrying valuables and leading pets and horses behind them. Others gathered in one of four shelters opened by the Red Cross. Officials could not say how many people had left homes.

Officials, however, said neither city was out of the woods yet. "There are still structures at risk," said John Foy, spokesman with the Ventura County Fire Protection District. "There are still places in the city at risk."

The weather was not expected to cooperate today. The forecast will remain the same -- hot and windy.

Santa Ana winds should end by Tuesday night or Wednesday, said Bill Hoffer, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. "We're going to to start getting that onshore flow again," he said.

Fire officials are advising people to steer clear of Highways 23 and 118 today. Motorists are urged to leave early, allow plenty of time to reach destinations, slow down in heavy smoke and move out of the way of fire vehicles or equipment.

About 800 firefighters from around the state battled the conflagration Sunday, including the Ventura County Fire Protection District, Los Angeles Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department, Kern County Fire Department, and Santa Barbara County Fire Department. Ventura County sheriff's deputies and Simi Valley police also assisted.

Fire officials acknowledged that resources were stretched thin because of the numerous Southern California fires. However, fire companies from Ramona, Sacramento, Clovis, Pechanga and Riverside County arrived Sunday to assist in Ventura County.

Officials reported the fire 5 percent contained by 7:30 p.m. but could not say when it would be brought under control. They expected the blaze to burn more land.

Their goal, Davidson said, was to keep the fire north of Highway 118 and west of Los Angeles County so it did not threaten Thousand Oaks. They were also hoping to keep it east of Highway 23 so it didn't reach the Las Posas hills and Santa Rosa Valley, Foy said.

A second fire that started in Piru on Thursday had been nearly contained until it flared up Sunday afternoon, threatening the city of Fillmore.

As of the last report Sunday night, the following roads or parts of roads were closed: Highway 118 between Moorpark and the San Fernando Valley; Tierra Rejada Road between Simi Valley and Moorpark; Highway 23 between Moorpark and Fillmore; and Highway 126 from Santa Paula to Interstate 5, officials said.

The blaze darkened skies, which rained snowlike ash to Ventura and Newbury Park. Firefighting efforts were thwarted by 20 to 30 mph winds, which forced air tankers from the air. Helicopters, however, continued making water drops, Luna said.

On Saturday, Gov. Gray Davis proclaimed a state of emergency in Ventura and San Bernardino counties and asked President Bush to declare a major disaster for both counties. Davis' proclamation will allow counties to recoup firefighting costs, estimated at $911,000 on Sunday night.

Here's what happened in specific communities:

Simi Valley

On Sunday morning firefighters concentrated their efforts near Yosemite Road, after battling the blaze just west of there above the Tapo Canyon Road and Sycamore Road areas the night before.

In some areas, firefighters played a wait-and-see game with the flames, keeping their hoses aboard their trucks until the need became urgent.

"The front of the fire is all over, as far as we can tell," said Robert Pumphrey, an engineer with the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Larry and Kathy Fried were almost evacuated twice by the roving wildfire as it snaked through Simi Valley and the hillsides north of it Saturday and Sunday.

Saturday night, the Frieds were among 300 people attending a jazz and wine event at the Los Canyons Golf Course when police shut down the party because of the approaching fire.

The next morning, the Frieds were preparing to leave their home in the Indian Hills neighborhood as 40-foot flames swept the brush-covered hills above their back yard on Seneca Street.

"I feel safer here than anywhere else because they're right here," said Kathy Fried, gesturing at the firefighters standing ready behind her house. "We were actually in the process of moving our valuables to the car."

Flames also threatened homes above Atherwood Park in north-central Simi Valley.

Under Sunday's smoky sky, Bob Maryon of Simi Valley used his garden hose to water down hot spots in the hillside above his home on Gage Avenue, a cul-de-sac at the top of the housing tract.

"The fire was coming down the hill this morning so I took the motor home with the dog down to Alamo (Street) and then walked back up to my home," Maryon said. "In that amount of time, maybe 20 minutes, it had come down, all the way down the hill."

Reagan Library

Around noon, the fire came within a mile of the Reagan Library, which sits between Tierra Rejada and Olsen roads.

The library is protected by a firebreak that surrounds the building, Luna said. Still, 22 firefighters, six engines and a California National Guard firefighting helicopter worked to protect the facility, which was closed to the public and the media at the direction of its staff.

"We were trying to keep the fire to the north of Tierra Rejada (Road), but we had a small spot fire jump over Tierra Rejada (Road)," said Ventura County Fire Capt. Mike Milkovich.

Firefighters said they expected to keep a heavy presence at the library into today. "Tonight, when the sun goes down, we're afraid it will come up the hill and come in behind us," Ventura County Fire Capt. Mike Valley said.

Moorpark

The blaze left 3,700 people in Moorpark without power, among 5,000 affected countywide, according to Southern California Edison officials.

Lulu Tews wandered Moorpark on Sunday looking for bathrooms, trailed by her horses, dogs and most valued belongings. The night before, Tews took the advice of a Ventura County sheriff's deputy and left her ranch home in the 8200 block of Fruitvale Avenue.

She loaded as many horses as possible into three trailers. "We still have horses there," Tews said about the 15 left behind running in a pasture. "We can't get up there."

Tews spent the night in the parking lot of a Ralph's store, then went to the Moorpark Moose Lodge on East Los Angeles Avenue. "We're at the lodge right now because they've got bathrooms. We haven't slept."

Others at the lodge hoped they would return to find ranches intact. Gerald Williams had been standing at the bottom of South Mountain Road near Santa Paula around 8 a.m. Sunday, knowing that a house on his avocado ranch where an employee lives was burning. "I couldn't get there. I couldn't get in," Williams said. "It took his home. That's his home."

Santa Paula

By 9:30 a.m. Sunday, the fire reached the Santa Clara River bed, south of the city limits, after wending its way through Grimes Canyon, Balcom Canyon and down South Mountain.

By midafternoon, it burned all of the riverbed abutting Santa Paula's city limits but did not destroy any structures. The area smoldered like a war zone. Some embers ignited small fires on farmers' fertilizer piles.

Police called Santa Paula City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz around 4 a.m., warning him the flames were coming over the ridge down toward Highway 126.

"The entire (Santa Clara) river bed went up in flames," Bobkiewicz said about midmorning. Residents were more curious than panicky and businesses were operating normally, he said. There were a few outbuildings near Santa Paula Airport that were threatened but not burned.

But by the afternoon officials worried that the Piru fire advancing on Fillmore would also reach Santa Paula.

John Bennett of Ventura arrived at the Rancho Santa Paula Mobile Home park around 11:30 a.m. to evacuate his mother-in-law though no formal instruction was given. Flames in the riverbed reached 75 feet, Bennett said. "You know when you put logs on a fire, how it crackles?" Bennett asked rhetorically. "It sounded right next door."

Fillmore

A smaller fire that advanced from Piru consumed an estimated 25,000 acres on Sunday, and licked at back yards in the hills of Fillmore but had not consumed any homes by about 8 p.m. Early in the day, officials worried about an easterly wind pushing the flames toward Fillmore. When the winds died down, they became optimistic that the community might escape with relatively little damage.

Keith Gurrola of the Ventura County Fire Protection District said much of the fire had been shunted toward an area called the Sespe oil fields north of Fillmore. He said firefighters were focusing on preventing the blaze from crossing the Sespe Creek.

"If it does cross," he said Sunday night, "there's a high probability it will burn to Santa Paula."

Firefighters from departments throughout California were spread throughout Fillmore to stop the advance of a blaze that left the hillsides scarred.

"It looks like Christmas tree lights," Foothill Drive resident Brenda Ortiz said as she watched the burning hills with neighbors, dreading the fire but also fascinated by it. "It's beautiful, but it's so disruptive."

High school athletic events and practices countywide could be impacted today. There are four outdoor events on today's local high school schedule and 17 on Tuesday.

Pacific View League Athletic Director Tony Diaz plans to meet with Oxnard Union High School District officials today on an air-quality plan, he said Sunday. Practices for football, cross country, girls tennis, girls golf and boys water polo teams could be either canceled or moved to alternate sites, possibly indoors.

-- Staff writers Derry Eads, Tom Kisken, Michelle Klampe, Jim Medina, Aron Miller, Jean Cowden Moore, Leslie Parrilla and Brad Smith contributed to this story.

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