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Ventura County under siege: "It was like seeing Rome burn"

Reports began arriving shortly after 9 p.m. Monday. A fire had broken out in the middle of the oaks and bushes in the hills north of Santa Paula.

Located at the southern end of Sespe Wilderness, the fire was named the Thomas Fire because of its proximity to Thomas Aquinas College. In a matter of hours-his embers headed westward from the blasts of the Santa Ana winds-he had reached Ventura, a dozen miles away.

Mark Patterson, 58, and his wife Linda, 59, woke to the sound of their front doors. It was 1:15 a.m. Nobody was there, and at first they thought it was a joke. But then they could see flames jumping over the ridgeline to the north. Meeting the neighbors on the street, they held a vigil, and by 4 o'clock in the morning, the hill was consumed.

Standing in the driveway, feeling the heat of the flames, they knew they had to evacuate. But first they went to the church where Patterson is the senior pastor. It was safe, but there were more fires in the center, and the huge apartment complex – Hawaiian Village, known for its views over the city to the ocean – was engulfed in flames.

"We have lived in Ventura for 19 years," said Patterson. "We had a couple of fires, but nothing like this."

The fire had taken Foothill Road as its path to the city. First he burned the dried leaves of the avocado forests, found new fuel in the houses built north of Highway 101. Its brightness illuminated the night sky.

Jeff Jacobson and his daughters, Emma, ​​20, and Olivia, 16, began evacuating before midnight. His one-story, ranch-style house on Island View Drive – his backyard with coastal views, the Channel Islands in the distance – was threatened.

Jacobson had considered staying and fighting. He looked at his two grand pianos, one appreciated by Mason and Hamlin of 1937; They could get lost, he thought. But his daughters insisted.

"Let's go," they said. "Let's move on".

Unable to ignore them, they loaded a trailer and headed to the evacuation center at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

In the past, wildfires have largely bordered the Ventura center, burning the wild lands surrounding the smaller communities of Ojai and Santa Paula, but on Monday night it was different.

The blackouts left more than 260,000 residents without power in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. of the Department of Firefighters from Ventura County reported nearly 31,000 acres consumed and 150 structures destroyed.

The firefighters installed their command post at the fairgrounds and began to plan their offensive, but first they had to wait at dawn.

To the east, stories were coming: from neighbors in Camarillo joining with garden hoses and nozzles to fight the attack of sparks; from a mother in Santa Paula who ran through a police line to grab her daughter's guitar ("It's all I wanted"); from the crowds who had gathered to watch the black smoke and flames crawl along a dry ridge near dozens of houses.

The winds ripped the bougainvillea, sending flames up to a hundred feet high into the sky. Some houses were saved, others destroyed, trees and chaparral blackened and smoky.

The land, said one resident, had not seen a fire in more than three decades, letting this conflagration be eaten through years of brush and debris. .

Earlier, the gray sky with smoke and ash, Scott Quirarte, a public information officer from the Ventura County Fire Department, delivered the news: miles of line of fire and the frustration of having to wait until the Dawn to start operations.

At 6 a. M., Heather Rhoades, 24, and her boyfriend Tyler Miller, 29, were evacuating Oak View with their family. They were driving on Highway 33 toward Ventura, and flames covered the slopes adjacent to the road. It was scary, Miller said, "like driving through the gates of hell."

"All I saw was Ventura engulfed in flames," Rhoades added. "All of my friends' houses were burning, it was just terrifying."

David Demshki and his wife, Christy Harris, who live in Oxnard and need to rescue their three horses in Oak View.

Demshki said that "I felt like I was going to the fire". The hills were "boiling" with flames and the sky glowed orange. 19659002] Just east of Highway 33 in Ventura, patients had been evacuated from Vista del Mar Hospital, an acute psychiatric facility, above the center of the city. Two buildings were destroyed, the installation was steaming under the smoky sky.

Upon returning to Island View Drive, Jeff Jacobson saw the flames leave his home still in flames. He could see one of the two pianos, broken and charred, and tried to contain the tears as the memories flooded, the precious notes of Emma playing.

"So many things that are not replaceable, do not even know where to start," Jacobson said.

At 8 a. m., winds were blowing at 40 mph and on distant ridges, reaching a maximum of almost 70. The ocean was dotted with white patches. More than 1,000 firefighters were on the scene, and by 10:30 am, Governor Jerry Brown had declared an emergency.

According to some estimates, almost a quarter of Ventura (27,000 people) had been evacuated.The mansions of Foothill Road were engulfed in flames.The city was stained with smoke, palm trees consumed by flames and Christmas decorations, including an inflatable snowman, obscured by soot.

On Main Street, power had been restored at Pete's Breakfast House, where Gilberto Amaya went to work on the grill. While stirring eggs, owner Lindsay Timpson began making burritos for breakfast, which supposed 800, that her daughter would deliver to firefighters on the slopes above the city.

Mary Tedesco and her husband Steve were helping. They left home just in time to save their three dogs, but they lost two Harley-Davidson and the irreplaceable memories of their family: an inheritance cookbook and sergeant's badge from a WWII father.

"I just try very hard not to let me break," said Mary Tedesco. "You have to stay strong."

In the early afternoon, the fire was at 45,500 acres. By nightfall, it was more than 55,000 acres.

"We anticipate that number will grow," said Captain Stan Ziegler of the Ventura County Fire Department.

At the fair's evacuation center, south of 101, Robin Andersen was walking his dogs. After leaving the caravan of her neighborhood with her neighbors, the 62-year-old woman spent the night in her car along with her three dogs and two cats.

The city, he said, "looked like Armageddon."

"I sat in front of the fire, and it was like seeing Rome burn," Andersen said. "I cried, I love this city so much and it was defeated by the flames."

Greg Lindfors disguised as Santa Claus for children who had been evacuated.

"I can not help like the firemen or the Red Cross do, but I can do this," Lindfors said.

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