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Wildfires Wreak Havoc On California, Including A Thousand Oaks Still In Mourning

Firefighters try to beat the Woolsey Fire in the early hours Friday. One day earlier, the blaze ignited as mourning residents tried to cope with quite another kind of terror in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Image credit: Eric Thayer

Updated at 1:30 p.m. ET

On Thursday afternoon, while Thousand Oaks reeled with the trauma of a mass shooting, mourning the 12 victims slain at a bar in cold blood, a new danger was brewing just miles to the east of the small California community. Unbeknownst to residents, the Woolsey Fire had just ignited a half-hour drive away.

Now the blaze is more than 8,000 acres and expanding quickly.

By Friday morning, some 75,000 homes across Ventura and Los Angeles counties — and extending as far south as the city of Malibu — were already under evacuation orders. The wildfire was also complicating those evacuation efforts by finding footholds on both sides of one of the region’s main thoroughfares, the 101 Freeway.

Yet as desperate as the situation appears in the area, the Woolsey Fire is not the only blaze menacing California. It’s not even the only one ravaging Ventura County.

Just 20 minutes before the Woolsey Fire ignited near Simi Valley on Thursday afternoon, another wildfire was taking hold mere miles farther west. Now known as the Hill Fire, that fast-moving blaze has consumed some 6,000 acres of land. It has forced evacuations at Naval Air Station Point Mugu and at California State University, Channel Islands, along with several communities near the southern Ventura coastline.

The location and direction of the Hill Fire is playing to firefighters’ advantage, though, according to Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen.

“Fortunately for us, it is burning into the old footprint of the Springs Fire of 2013, and the fire activity there has diminished,” he told reporters Friday, adding that this has allowed crews to “focus a little bit more heavily” on the Woolsey Fire instead.

And nearly 500 miles north of the region, still another wildfire has consumed some 70,000 acres in about 24 hours and reduced an entire town to rubble. The Camp Fire, which began Thursday morning, had by nightfall wiped out the community of Paradise, north of Sacramento — though no deaths have been reported from this or the other two wildfires.

A local couple recorded their harrowing escape from the region, posting a video on Facebook that recalls scenes from an apocalyptic film.

“Heavenly Father, please help us — please help us to be safe,” the woman prays in the passenger seat, choking back tears as their vehicle threads a path toward safety through billowing clouds of ash and embers.

Another resident told Jeremy Siegel of member station KQED that as she attempted to get out of the area, “we were engulfed in flames — both sides of the road.” She had to turn her vehicle around and head in another direction to escape, but that all the while, it “scared me to death.”

More than 2,200 firefighters are battling the Camp Fire, which, like the other two fires, has been exacerbated by intensely gusty, dry weather — conditions during which “a simple spark can cause a major wildfire,” explains the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

And CalFire Capt. Bill Murphy warned there’s likely still more to come.

“We are by no means out of the woods as far as the danger posed by the fire,” “The amount of uncontained fire line is very large.”

To the south, hundreds of firefighters have their own hands full with the Woolsey and Hill blazes. As of CalFire’s latest updates, neither of the two southern blazes were even partially contained, and the Ventura County Fire Department announced that it would be deploying tactical aircraft to battle the fires “as wind and smoke conditions allow.”

“The first part of this fuel bed had not seen fire for many years. Drought-stricken fuels, Santa Ana wind conditions, low relative humidity, high temperatures: it’s a recipe for fire,” said VCFD Assistant Chief Chad Cook, according the Ventura County Star.

The warm Santa Ana winds remained strong Friday morning, with gusts as high as 70 mph forecast in certain regions around the two southern fires. The National Weather Service does not expect the gusts to subside until later in the day.

In the meantime, the mandatory evacuations are clogging roadways already prone to traffic. Residents reported miles-long traffic jams along the Pacific Coast Highway, which wends its way through Malibu.

Thousands of cars stood bumper to bumper, trying to ply their way slowly south to safer parts — all while a bank of thick gray smoke crept over the horizon.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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