By Raiza Giorgi
Photos and video by Daniel Dreifuss
*Update as of Wednesday Dec. 6 – The Thomas Fire is at 65,000 acres and still zero containment, according to fire officials. The structures destroyed remains at an estimate of 150, however thousands more are threatened. *
In a matter of hours the Thomas Fire took thousands of residents in Ventura County by surprise overnight when the winds increased growing a relatively small brush fire that has now burned more than 50,500 acres and no containment, according to Ventura County Fire officials.
Santa Ynez Valley native Shannon Foster and her family who have recently moved to Ventura area to take care of family, were awakened at 1 a.m. with orders to evacuate. She just returned home from the hospital after having her second daughter last weekend. The Foster’s along with 27,000 other residents have been evacuated.
Greg Smith returned to his home in Ventura in hopes that there would be something left as the Thomas Fire raged out of control Monday evening. Him and his girlfriend decided after seeing the flames getting closer to their neighborhood it was a good idea to start packing up the things that mattered most to them.
“I looked up to the hills behind us and saw a red glow, it was time to pack up. I knocked on everybody’s doors and made sure they were on their way out. We helped our landlord next door and his wife and helped them,” Smith said.
It was 10:30 p.m. on Monday evening and they drove to Ventura High School and they watched their house burn until 3 a.m. They left and stayed with a friend. After only being in the neighborhood since July of this year they rented the house from her boss who has lived in the area for 47 years.
Watch his incredible story here.
“This is one of the worst fires we have seen in a long time,” said Ventura County Fire Cpt. Stan Ziegler.
“When daylight comes, we have eight fixed-wing and several helicopters ordered,” fire officials said in a press briefing in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
The fire started just before 7 p.m. Monday along Highway 150 in the 1000 block of Ojai Road in the vicinity of Thomas Aquinas College and Steckel Park.
Fire officials are estimating roughly 150 buildings, from residences to apartment complexes and other structures, have been lost. As of Tuesday evening more than 50,500 acres have been burned and the fire has spread town to Highway 101 west of Ventura. Flames could be seen in the area of Seacliff Drive and Faria Beach. The highway remains open.
There is a mandatory curfew for residents from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
“The City of Ventura understands and appreciates the concern for the residents who have been displaced by the Thomas Fire. Under the extreme current conditions, it is impossible to allow residents to reenter areas that have been damaged by or are still experiencing erratic fire conditions,” city officials released.
More than 1,100 firefighters are assigned to the blaze. Crews were having trouble with getting water as the system that pumps the water runs on electricity and the power grid was shut down by Southern California Edison due to damages.
SCE officials determined outages affected 83,000 customers in Santa Barbara County and 150,000 customers in Ventura County. SCE customers should be prepared for additional power outages since the transmission lines remained threatened and additional interruptions were possible, Cox said Tuesday morning.
Ventura County emergency information is available here, including updated evacuation notices, road closures, school closures, and shelter locations.
Caltrans District 7 has emergency road and highway closure information online here.
Tuesday morning, Ventura County ordered a mandatory evacuation of the Casitas Springs, Foster Park and Creek Road areas in the Ojai Valley, telling residents to head to the Ventura County Fairgrounds at 10 West Harbor Blvd.
The fire had jumped to the west side of Highway 33 near Foster Park, and was burning toward Red Mountain.
Santa Ana winds fueled the growing fire Monday night and strong winds were expected to lessen Tuesday but return Wednesday night and Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.
Coastal and valley areas in Ventura and Los Angeles counties could have gusts up to 60 mph and mountain areas could have gusts up to 80 mph, the National Weather Service said in a special weather statement.
Ventura County has a red flag warning – signifying the risks of strong winds and low relative humidity – in effect through Thursday night, and it could be extended if winds keep up, according to the National Weather Service.
“This will likely be the strongest and longest duration Santa Ana wind event we have seen so far this season. If fire ignition occurs, there will be the potential for very rapid fire spread, long range spotting, and extreme fire behavior,” the warning states.
Ventura, Santa Paula, and Ventura County have all declared local emergencies in response to the fire. Schools in the affected areas will remain closed on Wednesday, according to the Ventura County Office of Education.
Santa Barbara County Public Health and Air Pollution Control District officials issued an air quality warning Tuesday as smoke and ash from the Thomas Fire blew into the area.
Evacuation shelters are set up at Ventura County Fairgrounds at Miners Building, which also includes animal shelters, at 10 W. Harbor Blvd. The other shelter is at Nordoff High School located at 1401 Maricopa Highway in Ojai.
Ventura Unified School District have been closed as well as the Hueneme Elementary and Santa Paula School Districts.
Noozhawk writer Giana Magnoli contributed to this story.