THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Twin wildfires roared through Southern California, prompting 100,000 people to flee amid a state of emergency declared Friday across two counties where thousands of acres have burned.
Acting Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared a state of emergency for Los Angeles and Ventura Counties as one fire grew to 22 square miles with zero containment as it raced across Highway 101 to the south, where it incinerated homes and vehicles in Malibu.
Powerful gusts whipped flags raised at half-mast in the predawn hours, and an orange glow could be seen throughout Thousand Oaks, along with bright flares along the ridgelines in Ventura County.
The first blaze, dubbed the Hill Fire, reduced in size Friday as it settled into the footprint of a 2013 fire, officials said.
A second blaze — the Woolsey Fire — began to tear across the Bell Canyon area Thursday evening and destroyed homes, forcing a 3 a.m. evacuation that sent families onto darkened streets in search of a safe direction to move.
People in swaths of the Malibu area were ordered to evacuate after the fire jumped Highway 101. The Woolsey Fire was expected to reach the ocean as it becomes the main focus of firefighter efforts.
Officials said no one has been killed due to lack of evacuations. But they said it was too early to determine how many homes have been lost.
“When we get to that point, it will be significant,” Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Deputy David Richardson said at a news conference.
Other areas nearby are only “voluntary” evacuation zones, though the term does not provoke much relief for people who have seen fires rage quickly this week, on both ends of the state.
“It’s dangerous to sleep all night,” said Sergio Figueroa, 34, who was dropping his wife at a hotel where she works. He watched television late Thursday and into the early hours Friday, knowing his home was in one such voluntary zone.
He said he permitted himself one hour of shut-eye — but not actual sleep. “You just close your eyes and stay alert,” he said.
The National Weather Service has warned that powerful Santa Ana winds — gusts that swirl from the east and accelerate down California’s north-to-south-oriented mountain slopes — would meet dry conditions through Friday, laying the groundwork for even more devastation.
The two fires have bracketed Thousand Oaks, where a gunman entered the Borderline Bar & Grill on Wednesday and killed 12 people before killing himself.
In the predawn darkness Friday, a firetruck steadily hosed what was left of one stately home on the north side of the city while the houses at its shoulders somehow remained spared. There was no one around but first responders. People had fled, power was out, and the only light was from the blaze.
Firefighters have struggled to overcome another natural barrier. Steep terrain in burn areas have forced officials to take to the skies in an effort to snuff out blazes with water and flame retardants, much of it dispersed by gusts that topped 40 miles an hour.
“We’re doing our best to attack this fire from the air, but extreme winds prohibits our ability,” said Ventura County Fire Capt. Stan Ziegler, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Ventura County Fire Capt. Brian McGrath said his firefighters responded to the mass killing and later joined the Thursday procession to escort the remains of Sgt. Ron Helus of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. He was killed by the gunman after arriving on scene.
“Most personnel were able to get a few hours of rest and, now, are back at it,” McGrath said, the Times reported. “We are ready and we are here.”
The devastating events have also exhausted locals.
“This is crazy. We’ve never had that before. We have all aspects of Ventura County on fire,” said Paige Gordon, a real estate agent. “That’s what’s freaking everybody out. We have spot fires all over the place.”
He then began to choke up: “Unfortunately we haven’t even been able to grieve for our friends.”
Beatriz Bera, a 21-year-old from Thousand Oaks, said she and her family got a knock on their door around 2 a.m. Friday. Their property manager told them to evacuate.
“It is too much, first with the Borderline shooting, now the fire,” she said. “Thousand Oaks is such a small community … how can you go from one thing to another?”
Bera said she had never lived through one of the terrifying wildfires that have become common occurrences in California. (In the north, a deadly fire has yet to be contained after it burned through a massive section of Butte County, leaving at least five people dead and scores of others injured and destroying the town of Paradise.)
Reminders were everywhere in Thousand Oaks of the other devastation the community had already experienced as the two fires neared.
Images of the Borderline victims, Bera said, have appeared around town.
“We see faces. They’re not strangers,” she said. “As a community we have to help each other. We have to come together.”
Tyler Peddicord, 29, who teaches baseball mechanics, fueled up and before dawn after they were by emergency evacuation alerts in Newbury Park.
“It’s been a bad day,” said Jason Hogue, 50, a technician, referring to the fire and the mass shooting. “It’s not what the community needs right now.”
Horton reported from Washington.