A fast-moving, wind-fueled wildfire swept into the city of Ventura early Tuesday, burning 50,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing more than 27,000 people to evacuate. About 3,000 homes were threatened by flames, a firefighter was injured and Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Ventura County on Tuesday morning, as some 1,000 personnel continued to battle the Thomas fire. At least 150 structures - including at least one large apartment complex and the Vista Del Mar Hospital, a psychiatric facility - were consumed by flames. But Cal Fire suspects the true number is hundreds more; firefighters just haven't been able to get into areas to know for sure. The fall weather sequence helped spark the Thomas fire, which as of 5 p.m. Tuesday was 0% contained and moving west, fire officials said. In the last couple of years, the rains came before the Santa Ana winds. But this year, with no rain in three months, the winds hit dry fuels. "This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly, but we'll continue to attack it with all we've got," Brown said. "It's critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so." The state sent resources to help with firefighting efforts as authorities expanded mandatory and voluntary evacuation areas, and opened new shelters throughout the county. Ventura County officials have asked the state for eight fixed-wing firefighting aircraft to help douse the flames, said Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Donoghue. The blaze started about 6:25 p.m. Monday in the foothills near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, a popular hiking destination. It grew wildly to more than 15 square miles in the hours that followed - consuming vegetation that hasn't burned in decades, Ventura County Fire Sgt. Eric Buschow said. "The burn area is pretty much all the mountains between Ventura and Ojai and extending east to Santa Paula," Donoghue said. "It's a challenge because of the enormity of it, and it's a challenge because it's pretty rugged terrain." Power outages also caused problems for firefighters Monday night and rendered some pumping systems inoperable, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Steve Kaufmann. Some hydrants couldn't get water pumped to them because there was no power, he said. At one point in Ojai, the entire water system went down, including hydrants and drinking water, because a pumping system was damaged by the fire, Kaufmann said. On Tuesday morning the water district had sent people to Ventura to repair the problems, but he did not know status of the repair. "It definitely presented a challenge to us," he said. By 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, authorities had ordered a mandatory evacuation of the entire community of Casitas Springs, northwest of Ventura. The evacuation area spreads from the northern portion of Highway 33 into Ojai, said Ventura County Fire Department Capt. Stan Ziegler. The county also issued a voluntary evacuation order for all parts of Ojai Valley not under mandatory evacuation. In addition to the Ventura County Fairgrounds in Ventura and Nordhoff High School in Ojai, evacuation centers have been set up at the Oxnard College gymnasium and Santa Paula Community Center. The size of the fire will likely grow, Ziegler said. Authorities are still seeing "erratic fire behavior and erratic winds so it's making the firefight very difficult," Ziegler said. Aircraft are available for firefighting efforts, but will usually only drop retardant when winds are below 30 mph, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Scott McLean. About 7 a.m., the wind appeared to be pushing the fire east toward Camarillo and north toward Ojai, said Ventura County Sheriff's Senior Deputy Tim Lochman. On Tuesday firefighters continued trying to save homes in Ventura, where the fire was active. They faced a red-flag wind advisory that notes ridgeline winds of 35 to 45 mph, with gusts up to 70 mph. Winds are expected to decrease somewhat in the afternoon, said Chad Cook, Ventura County Fire Department division chief.
The fire hopscotched through hillside neighborhoods Monday night, burning some homes and sparing others. Some residents hoped the worst might be over in the early hours of the morning when the wind died down. But it picked up with a fury around daybreak, causing more destruction. Engulfed in flames, the Hawaiian Village Apartments above central Ventura collapsed about 4 a.m. Water gushed down North Laurel Street as firefighters worked to put out the flaming complex and residents watched, holding cameras and cellphones. The sound of bursting propane tanks filled the air. Hundreds of firefighters working through the night tried to prevent the blaze from spreading, block by block, as they were confronted by wind gusts of up to 50 mph. One firefighter was hit by a car while he was protecting homes. He was at a hospital, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Scott Quirarte. Fire officials said the intensity of the fire, coupled with the high winds, made it pretty much unstoppable. Schools in the Oxnard, Ventura, Hueneme and Santa Paula school districts were closed Tuesday. California authorities have secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist in firefighting efforts, the Office of Emergency Services announced Tuesday morning. Fire officials expected flames would rip through at least 50,000 acres in the mountains between Santa Paula and Ventura. The destruction comes in what was already the worst year on record for wildfires in California. Forty-four people were killed and more than 10,000 structures were lost when fires swept through Northern California's wine country in October. The Thomas fire's movement bears some similarity to Northern California's Tubbs fire, which ravaged the town of Santa Rosa and killed more than 20 people in October, McLean said. The Thomas fire has moved almost as quickly as the Tubbs did, with winds pushing flames that started north of a community into a city, he said. Like the Tubbs, there are access issues with the Thomas fire because of the topography, McLean said. What's different, though, is that authorities began the morning of the Tubbs firefighting more than a dozen blazes in the area, whereas the Thomas fire is currently the greatest threat in Southern California. The Creek fire, near Sylmar, was at 11,000 acres early Tuesday afternoon and had destroyed at least 30 structures. There were no confirmed fatalities in the Thomas fire as of 2 p.m., authorities said. Southern California has been under red-flag weather conditions since Monday, with "the strongest and longest duration Santa Ana wind event we have seen so far this season" expected through at least Thursday, the National Weather Service said. The dry, gusty Santa Ana winds will continue for at least the next three days, the National Weather Service said. "Generally, it's awful fire weather today, tomorrow and Thursday," said forecaster Ryan Kittell. "The winds we're seeing right now are ... plenty strong to drive a fire." It doesn't matter that the winds are relatively cool compared to typical Santa Anas because wind gusts are so powerful and dry, he said.