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Ventura County wildfire rages over 50,000 acres, destroys more than 150 structures; 27,000 flee

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John Bain and Brandon Baker take cover from the embers as they try to help stop a fire from burning a stranger’s home in Ventura, Calif., on Tuesday. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
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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 evacuated, 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.

Firefighters had not achieved any containment on the fire as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, as authorities expanded mandatory and voluntary evacuation areas and opened new shelters throughout the county.

“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. 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.

At least 150 structures — including  one large apartment complex and the Vista Del Mar Hospital, a psychiatric facility — were consumed by flames, and many more were threatened.

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 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 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.

“The burn area is pretty much all the mountains between Ventura and Ojai and extending east to Santa Paula,” said Ventura County Sheriff Sgt. Kevin Donoghue. “It’s a challenge because of the enormity of it, and it’s a challenge because it’s pretty rugged terrain.”

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 working and is at a hospital, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Scott Quirarte.

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.

At one point in Ojai, the entire water system went down because a pumping system was damaged by the fire, Kaufmann said.

By 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, authorities had ordered a mandatory evacuation 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  the rest of Ojai Valley.

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.

The destruction comes in what was already the worst year on record for wildfires in California. In October, 43 people died and more than 10,000 structures were lost when fires swept through Northern California’s wine country.

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.

There are no confirmed fatalities in the Thomas fire as of Tuesday at 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.

— Tribune News Service

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