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Hundreds Of Thousands Flee California Wildfires


The wildfires in Southern California are raging and growing. In Ventura County, the Thomas fire has burned more than 130,000 acres. It is only 10 percent contained. Flames have reached Santa Barbara County to the north. Stephanie O'Neill reports mandatory evacuations are keeping residents on the move.

STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: The wind-fueled wildfire has completely surrounded the mountain town of Ojai and nearby communities. Larry Harrold has lived in Ojai since 1973. He's among many here who stayed to fight the fire, one unlike any he's ever seen.

LARRY HARROLD: When it was up on the ridges, there were, like, hundred-foot flames.

O'NEILL: Harrold watched the then-distant flames from the roof of his barn. Initially, he says, he was confident that he could stand his ground.

HARROLD: But when that firestorm started blowing down that river, it was like five freight trains coming at you.

O'NEILL: Harrold got out fast. When he came back to inspect the damage, he was pleased to see the fire had burned right up to his property line and to that of his neighbors but then stopped. Longtime Ojai resident Ken Whitteker wasn't so lucky. He lives in a part of the Ojai Valley known as Matilija Canyon, a once-lush gorge that hasn't seen a serious fire in decades. He too decided to ignore the mandatory evacuation orders and defend his home.

KEN WHITTEKER: Me and a few other guys said we're not going 'cause we got to set things up and get ready for this. You know, I got to at least make an attempt to save our places 'cause the fire department wasn't there, and they weren't going to come. I knew they weren't.

O'NEILL: But finally the fast-moving fire forced him to flee.

WHITTEKER: The way the fire was progressing, we decided we're going to go now because this is the only chance we're going to have. And as it turned out, it was (laughter).

O'NEILL: The flames swept into a nearby rock quarry, where they ignited dynamite. Those explosions could be heard throughout the Ojai Valley. Whitteker and his friends jumped into trucks. He grabbed his neighbor's dog and raced down the narrow road where large rocks hot from the fire were blocking their exit.

WHITTEKER: I got a bunch of them out of the way and said, come on; get out of here; go. And when I was running back to my truck, I tripped, fell down. When I did, the flames came over the side of the road just right on top of me. And I caught my jacket on fire. I don't know how my hair didn't catch on fire.

O'NEILL: Whitteker jumped back into the truck. And with flames chasing him, he sped out of the canyon. He made it. His friends made it, too. But the fire destroyed all of their homes. The total loss of property in this area is still unknown, but it is significant. The fire has so far destroyed at least 75 homes and many other outbuildings such as barns, sheds and garages. Among those who returned to find good news - David Gilbert and his wife, Loa Bliss. They just finished framing a new home on their ranch in Ojai's Upper Valley.

LOA BLISS: The ranch has been in my family for - since 1874 - so approximately 150 years. And we have an old house there, and we are delighted to see that it is still standing as we speak. And we're hoping for the best.

O'NEILL: It's a hope shared by everyone who lives in this bucolic mountain community. But with high winds expected through Saturday, it's not over yet. When they do die down, residents here and throughout Ventura County will return to discover what's been lost and what remains. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Ojai, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie O'Neill