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Maria fire in Ventura County erupts to more than 8,700 acres, threatening Somis and Santa Paula

MusicMan 14 November 1, 2019

A fast-moving brush fire whipped by lingering Santa Ana winds exploded to more than 8,000 acres overnight in Ventura County, burning at least one home and forcing mandatory evacuations.

The Maria fire broke out atop South Mountain, just south of Santa Paula, about 6:14 p.m. Thursday and was quickly burning toward the small agricultural towns of Somis and Saticoy. By 7 a.m. Friday, the fire had grown to 8,730 acres and had no containment.

Fire officials say at least two structures have been lost and 1,800 are threatened. Mandatory evacuations are in place for a swath of homes south of the 126 Freeway, north of Los Angeles Avenue, east of Vineyard Avenue and west of Balcom Canyon Road. The evacuation orders encompassed about 7,500 people, fire officials said.

Maria fire evacuation map as of Friday Nov. 1

More than 500 firefighters battling the blaze took advantage of lower wind speeds overnight using a helicopter with night-flying capabilities and ground crews to beat back flames along the hillside in an effort to keep the fire from spreading toward homes or consuming nearby avocado and citrus orchards.

However, officials had to ground the chopper several times to avoid a drone that was flying in the area, apparently trying to photograph the blaze, Ventura County Fire Capt. Brian McGrath said.

“The winds have died down and the cold temperatures have reduced the fire’s ability to aggressively run downhill,” McGrath said. “Today we’re going to see what the sun looks like on it and see what the normal onshore breeze is going to do for us.”

As the gusts began to pick up Friday morning, dozens of fire vehicles staged around homes along the rolling hillsides of West La Loma Avenue prepared to protect the properties from possible flare-ups. Agricultural employees, wearing masks, worked nearby in citrus groves.

Shortly after the fire broke out Thursday evening, it made an aggressive march along the hillside, chewing through critically dry grass and brush. Aerial video footage showed at least one home burning along the southern flank of the fire, near La Loma Avenue and Center Road.

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However, because the blaze broke out high on the ridge, it gave authorities time to conduct evacuations before the flames moved down the mountain and into residential areas, Ventura Fire Assistant Chief John McNeil said. But the remote location also made it difficult for firetrucks to access, he said.

“I want to assure you that this is not the Thomas fire,” he said, referring to the massive 2017 fire. McNeil said the location of the Maria fire means it probably will run out of fuel to burn once it reaches more manicured landscapes at the bottom of the hill.

Greg Hoffmann, a shelter supervisor with the Red Cross at the Camarillo Community Center, said the shelter housed 21 people when it opened about 8 p.m. Thursday. By 6:45 a.m, the evacuees had left the center, he said, noting they had capacity to house about 700 people.

“They were pretty calm,” Hoffmann said. “Everyone was grateful to have a place to evacuate to.”

By 5 a.m., winds were still blowing from the northeast to the southwest, with sensors recording speeds about 18 mph and gusts up to 30 mph on the ridge where the blaze broke out. The fire area will continue to see similar wind conditions throughout the morning, said Curt Kaplan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Around 3 p.m., forecasters expect sea breezes from the Pacific Ocean to make their first appearance since Tuesday.

“The strongest winds are behind us now,” Kaplan said.

However, the persistently dry air in the region may present the most pressing challenge for fire crews, Kaplan said. The relative humidity in the area remains a bone-dry 6%.

Firefighters douse flames from a backfire as they battle the spread of the Maria fire moving quickly toward Santa Paula.
Firefighters douse flames from a backfire as they battle the spread of the Maria fire moving quickly toward Santa Paula.

Ventura County is already dealing with the Easy fire, which started Wednesday and threatened the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. That fire has burned 1,700 acres.

Santa Paula sits in the Santa Clara River Valley, among the most dangerous wind and fire corridors in Southern California. The river valley forms a wind-tunnel-like corridor, essentially connecting the high desert and the Santa Clarita Valley with the Oxnard Plain on the Ventura County coast between Oxnard and Ojai. The topography carries the potential for funneling severe Santa Ana winds.

471296_ME_11031_maria_4_RCG.JPG
Oxnard residents view the Maria Fire from a cul-de-sac near Highway 126 as it slowly burns through the night near the Santa Clara River in Santa Paula.

Toward the eastern part of that corridor, the recent Saddleridge fire was the third blaze near Sylmar in 11 years. Previously, the Sayre fire burned 11,000 acres in November 2008, and the monthlong Creek fire burned 15,000 acres in December 2017. That same month, the huge Thomas fire, at the western end of the Santa Clara River Valley, burned 280,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

The Maria fire broke out as crews continue to battle multiple fires across Southern California, including fires in San Bernardino and Jurupa Valley that together burned hundreds of acres and prompted thousands of residents to flee their homes.

Critical fire weather is expected to remain in place for the windiest areas of Ventura and L.A. counties through at least Friday afternoon, continuing red-flag conditions for an additional 24 hours. Unless it’s canceled early, that would make this period of critical fire weather that began at 11 p.m. Tuesday at least 67 hours long. That’s an unusually long duration for such a red flag warning; most last one or two days.

The red-flag warning, which sounds the alarm for high winds, dry air and parched vegetation, is expected to persist for inland mountains in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, valleys in Ventura County and the Santa Clarita Valley through at least Friday evening because of ongoing winds from the northeast and very dry air.

There’s a possibility that critical fire weather could persist into Saturday.

Times staff writers Paul Duginski and Robert Gauthier contributed to this report.