'There was ash absolutely everywhere': Californians start to return home after wildfires rip through the state

The fires have consumed a huge area of land from the San Diego area up the Pacific Coast to Santa Barbara

Jeremy B. White
Sylmar, California
Saturday 09 December 2017 00:12
The Thomas Fire burns through Los Padres National Forest, California
The Thomas Fire burns through Los Padres National Forest, California

Thousands of firefighters have tried to take advantage of reduced winds as they battle six major wild fires raging across Southern California.

The fires have consumed a huge area of land from the San Diego area up the Pacific Coast to Santa Barbara. The blazes, as well as several smaller fires, have forced at least 212,000 residents from their homes and destroyed more than 500 buildings.

In Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles, the largest of the blazes – the Thomas Fire – continued to rage. Spreading across 132,000 acres it has destroyed 439 structures, including many homes. However, with winds dropping, the 2,600 firefighters managed to increase containment of the blaze to 20 per cent, up from 10 per cent on Thursday.

People in the path of the massive Thomas Fire have had to grapple with the agonising decision of when to abandon their homes. Remembering the “ferociousness” of fires that engulfed Northern California earlier this year, Anita Chisholm had her car packed on Monday night and was scrambling to find safe homes for her three dogs.

By Tuesday morning, she said, “we could see the fire and the smoke on the hills directly at the end of our street” in Ojai. She left, and when she returned later in the week to see if her house was intact, she found the street thick with fire trucks.

“There was ash absolutely everywhere,” she said.

President Donald Trump issued a state of emergency declaration for the area, releasing funds and allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help coordinate relief efforts. The declaration from the President said he wanted to “alleviate the suffering” of Californians.

The blaze in San Diego County – the Lilac Fire – which had spread with frightening speed on Thursday reaching 4,100 acres, engulfed retirement communities and killed a number of horses in a local racehorse stable. Three people were burned while escaping the flames and at least 85 buildings were destroyed, authorities said. Around 900 of the 10,000 believed to have fled were said to be in shelters.

Of the other blazes, the Creek Fire, which is the second-largest blaze and stretches to 15,000 acres, is now 40 per cent contained. The Rye Fire, which has consumed 6,000 acres is 35 per cent contained, while the Skirball fire, which hit 475 acres including the exclusive Bel Air neighbourhood of Los Angeles, is 30 per cent contained. The Liberty Fire, which reached 300 acres in Riverside County,is the most under control at 60 per cent containment.

Elsewhere around Los Angeles, people were trading information and wondering what might await when they return to their homes. Firefighters have made enough progress with the fires for most evacuations to begin to be lifted. Although winds were due to change direction later on Friday, raising the risk of some firefighters becoming trapped. The winds are due to be an issue until at least Sunday.

At a community centre in Sylmar, Joseph Fernandez was corralling his three dogs, which he had grabbed early Tuesday morning after awakening at 4am and spotting “all these flames behind my house on the hillside”. He has been staying with his sister.

“We’re just waiting,” Mr Fernandez said.

Southern California bushfire rages on

Cars piled up on roads leading back to newly opened neighbourhoods in the crumpled, mountainous terrain where the Creek Fire inflicted the most damage, with residents waiting to see if they could return home and bracing themselves to see what had come of their houses. The acrid smell of burnt wood still hung in the air.

The fire has destroyed 65 homes and other structures and damaged dozens more. Earlier in day Brett Godwin discovered, to his gratitude, that his home was spared even as a structure on the same block burned – the seemingly random distribution of consequences, influenced by wind patterns and stray embers, that greet survivors of natural disasters.

“It was just so close,” said Mr Goodwin, a 55-year-old teacher.

But now he was frustrated: he was hoping to rescue animals belonging to a friend who lived further up the road, but authorities had turned him back. The fate of animals was a common concern in the area, where ranches and signs depicting riders atop horses line the roads.

In the days since she awoke at 3:21 am to an orange glow and the thrum of helicopters, Julie Morris said, she had managed “exactly five hours of sleep”. The thought of losing both her home and her horses did little to calm her mind. She lost neither, but friends scattered in the surrounding hills and canyons had seen their possessions consumed.

“We’re thrilled, but it’s a horrible feeling to be watching TV and see a friend’s house burning,” she said.

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