Woolsey fire destroys scores of homes, forcing 200,000 to evacuate; flames get closer to Pepperdine

After forcing 200,000 people to flee and burning scores of homes in Ventura County and Malibu, the Woolsey fire early Saturday morning pushed in several directions and created new dangers.

The fire continued to menace Malibu, approaching the beach in several spots and getting closer to Pepperdine University, where some students and staff remain on campus.

Throughout the early morning, Los Angeles County Fire Department strike teams battled to keep the fire from spreading onto the campus. Pepperdine said no permanent structures had been lost.

Elsewhere, the devastation was virtually complete. Fueled by dry conditions and extreme winds, the blaze has charred 35,000 acres and left a path of destruction and chaos while roaring through Oak Park, Thousand Oaks and other Ventura County communities before barreling into Malibu and burning to the water’s edge.

“We have a significant number of structures lost,” L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said. “I would estimate at least 100.”

Among the damaged properties were several apartment buildings in Malibu, homes in the hills nearby and the historic Western Town area at Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills, where the HBO series “Westworld” and other productions have been filmed.

No deaths had been reported as of Friday afternoon, but the number of damaged homes was sure to rise as the fire chewed east into the edge of West Hills, marking the first incursion into the city of Los Angeles. Fire officials said they will be assessing the damage Saturday.

During parts of Friday, heavy smoke and wind gusts as high as 50 mph grounded the helicopters and tankers that had been dispatched to drop water and retardant on the fire.

Weary firefighters also struggled with a shortage of equipment. The crews, trucks and other equipment that would normally come to Southern California to join the firefight were tied up at the Camp fire in Butte County, Osby said.

“We still have outstanding orders of hundreds of vehicles,” he said.

The Los Angeles Police Department issued a mandatory evacuation order early Friday evening that covered homes in West Hills west of Valley Circle Boulevard between Vanowen Street and Roscoe Boulevard. Officers were driving street to street in the neighborhood, urging residents to leave, officials said.

Downed power lines had made the roads in Bell Canyon inaccessible, forcing paramedics to airlift one victim with burns, officials said. Power poles also burned along the 101 Freeway near the Las Virgenes Road exit.

At 8:30 p.m. Friday night, police cars and fire engines blared down Valley Circle, the first major street that separates West Hills from the chaparral-covered hills to the west. People stood on the sidewalks and gawked at the blaze that engulfed nearby Castle Peak as helicopters circled overhead.

Maria Roberts, who has lived in Bell Canyon for a decade, came home from work Friday night thinking the fire was far enough away to avoid her home. Then came the howling winds, blowing so hard they shook her house.

Roberts and her 22-year-old daughter rushed out, covering their faces with sweaters, as flames flickered out their window at the back of the house and filled the air with heavy smoke.

“That was the most scared I’ve been in my entire life,” Roberts said, as she stood with other residents on a patch of dry grass, watching the fire.

Kathleen Lee watched the fire with her husband and wondered whether their Bell Canyon home would be there when they were allowed to return.

Almost no one had electricity or cellphone reception Friday morning when the fire roared through at 4:30 a.m., limiting residents’ access to evacuation and emergency information, she said. Instead, she ran door to door to wake people up.

The neighborhood worked for hours to save their property. The Lees hosed down their house as neighbors tried to protect horses, donkeys and goats, taking them to a nearby stable. When deputies told them to leave at 11 a.m., residents moved to the intersection of Elmsbury Lane and Bell Canyon Boulevard in West Hills to watch the fire for signs of damage and growth.

“There’s always hope they let you back in, but now, I don’t think so,” Lee said.

To the west of Valley Circle, 57-year-old Ken Keyser booked it up toward the home he’d lived in since 1983. He had already evacuated to his son’s home with his wife and daughter, taking most of their valuables with them: cash, guns, artwork and a California desert tortoise hibernating in the upstairs closet.

But Keyser came back to grab a few more things. He said he wasn’t concerned, remembering that Castle Peak burned every few years when he was growing up. But he was tired.

Keyser, an Allstate insurance agent, woke up at 1 a.m. to the sound of helicopters. He turned on the news and saw the home of one of his clients in Oak Park in flames. The owner had evacuated, but Keyser had to break the news to her over the phone: Her house was gone.

“I started a claim for her at 2 in the morning,” said Keyser, who visited other burn sites in Ventura and Los Angeles counties before evacuating his family.

Officials in Malibu warned residents at 12:30 p.m. to leave immediately as flames began burning out of control toward neighborhoods, and soon added homes in Topanga Canyon to the evacuation orders.

For those who chose to leave Friday, fleeing many neighborhoods wasn’t easy. Despite officials’ decisions to convert all lanes of Pacific Coast Highway into an evacuation route, the freeway was jammed with cars, made worse by power outages that took down several traffic signals.

“It’s kind of intimidating,” said Quinn Kuriger, 22, as he crept along the highway, a cloud of smoke darkening the sky behind him. He fled his home in Calabasas and crashed at a friend’s in Malibu, then evacuated again as the fire moved south.

Others left their cars and found sanctuary on the sand. At Zuma Beach, crashing waves provided a soundtrack of normalcy, but choking smoke polluted the normally fresh salt air as the flames marched toward the water.

Officials had offered the beach as an evacuation area for animals, including several llamas tethered to a lifeguard stand. An owl covered in sand blinked confusedly, and the shapes of horses and dogs loomed out of the orange haze.

Text alerts and a message on television told Shirley Hertel, 68, that she needed to evacuate from her Thousand Oaks neighborhood. She packed photos of her daughter and her mother, who died two years ago; some important documents; and an old painting of the Santa Monica Pier.

Before she hopped in the car with her family at 1 a.m., she stopped at her front door and gave it a kiss. Hours later, she saw it in flames on a television newscast.

She wept when she returned to inspect the damage Friday. Her daughter’s car, parked in the driveway, was reduced to its metal frame. The garage door and her daughter’s bedroom above it were burned too, the frame and windows ash black.

“How can a fire change your life in a day?” Hertel sobbed, as her husband, her niece and some friends hoisted wooden boards over the blown-out windows.

In Westlake Village, resident Rafael Garcia, 58, grabbed a garden hose and hopped over a fence to spray water on the porch of the house next door as it began to fall apart. The home has been vacant for more than two years, he said.

“I don’t think they care if this house burns,” Garcia said. “I’m trying to save our homes.”

The Woolsey fire and the nearby Hill fire, which burned about 6,000 acres in the Santa Rosa Valley area, prompted Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency on behalf of Gov. Jerry Brown, who was traveling out of state.

Newsom also sent a request to federal officials and President Trump for assistance to support communities affected by the fire.

The news of evacuation in Thousand Oaks added to the exhaustion of residents, many of whom had been shaken by news of the mass shooting at the nearby Borderline Bar and Grill less than a day earlier.

Early Thursday, Melissa Snyder learned that a close family friend, 21-year-old Noel Sparks, had been killed in the massacre. Less than 24 hours later, the family fled the house at 3 a.m. after her 16-year-old daughter received a text from a friend with the news.

“We didn’t get over the one tragedy until the next thing started,” Snyder said, wearing a robe as she stood in a Woodland Hills parking lot outside a Manhattan Bagels with her husband and five children.

The normally deserted 101 Freeway at 3 a.m. was packed with cars. Snyder’s daughter Kaylee, 16, said the drive felt like “you were leaving hell.”

Cosgrove and Oreskes reported from Ventura County and Nelson, Newberry and Mejia from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Alene Tchekmedyian, Alejandra Reyes-Velarde, Angel Jennings, Ben Poston, Hannah Fry, Howard Blume, Melissa Etehad, Richard Winton, Ruben Vives and Sarah Parvini contributed to this report.


UPDATES:

4 a.m.: This article was updated with more from Pepperdine.

Nov. 10, 12:10 a.m.: This article was updated with Pepperdine fire fight.

11:25 p.m. This article was updated with information on the fire threatening Pepperdine University.

10:25 p.m.: This article was updated throughout, including with details from West Hills and Bell Canyon.

7:20 p.m.: This article was updated with evacuation orders in West Hills and information from a resident.

6:30 p.m. This article was updated with details on homes burning in the San Fernando Valley.

5:20 p.m. This article was updated with a new acreage estimate for the Woolsey fire and a quote from Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby.

4:00 p.m.: This article was updated with details from Zuma Beach.

2:50 p.m.: This article was updated with details from a Thousand Oaks resident.

1:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional evacuations and interviews.

12:35 p.m.: This article was updated with homes burning in Malibu.

11:40 a.m.: This article was updated with information about Malibu and Westlake Village.

10:45 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional details from fire officials.

9:20 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional details and background.

7:30 a.m.: This article was updated with evacuations being ordered in Malibu and new information about fire resources and winds.

5:30 a.m.: This article was updated with the Ventura County Fire Department reporting that the fire has jumped the 101 Freeway.

4:50 a.m.: This article was updated with a comment from the Ventura County Fire Department about the fire’s fast spread.

3:50 a.m.: This article was updated with an increase in acreage and the number of homes under evacuation orders.

3:10 a.m.: This article was updated with additional evacuation orders.

2 a.m.: This article was updated new acreage, homes burned and interviews.

1:10 a.m.: This article was updated with more information.

This article was originally published at 12:45 a.m., Nov. 9

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