VENTURA COUNTY, Calif. — Despite a break in the howling Santa Ana winds that have hampered firefighters statewide, lingering winds late Thursday turned a brush fire north of Los Angeles into another fast-moving blaze that quickly spread to 12.5 square miles and forced the evacuation of 7,500 people.
Driven by winds of 20 to 30 mph, the Maria Fire broke out at 6:13 p.m. PDT Thursday and quickly engulfed both sides of the ridge — toward Santa Paula, about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles, on one side and Somis on the other, according to the Ventura County Fire Department.
Fire crews reported that at least two homes were destroyed in the first few hours as the fire spread westward.
About 1,800 homes were issued mandatory evacuation orders and 7,500 people were affected, said Fillmore Police Chief Garo Kuredjian.
“We’re actually going door to door notifying people and putting out VC Alerts with the messaging that there is a brush fire,” he said.
Dozens of local schools across several districts announced Friday closures because of the fire.
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The Maria Fire erupted just as crews had managed to get the nearly 3.1-square-mile Easy Fire 60% contained in Simi Valley, some 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
Worse, the National Weather Service extended a three-day-old “extreme-flag warning” until 6 p.m. Friday for local mountains and interior valleys, warning that after prolonged dry conditions, the danger for wildfires would continue.
Ventura County Assistant Fire Chief John McNeil noted two factors that should keep the Maria Fire from mimicking the disastrous Thomas Fire that scorched the area in 2017: A limit to combustible fuel in the area and an expectation of less powerful wind gusts.
At most, the Maria Fire could reach 18 square miles, McNeil said. The Thomas Fire, which raced from Santa Paula to Ventura in its first hours, eventually grew to 440 square miles, becoming for a time the largest wildfire ever recorded in the state.
McNeil said the Maria Fire, being pushed west by winds, was not expected to reach Ventura and would likely not move beyond the base of the mountain near Saticoy.
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Attempts by helicopters to make aerial drops on thee fire Thursday night were interrupted by a small drone that appeared to be “looking at photography of the fire,” said Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub.
The drone was expected to keep the aircraft out of the sky for several hours.
“This created quite a dangerous situation,” Ayub said at the news conference. “It’s not only illegal, but it hampers our firefighting.”
On the Somis side, a key concern was protecting agricultural resources.
Among the agricultural properties in the area was Petty Ranch between Santa Paula and Saticoy. Owner Chris Sayer said his property, known for growing avocados, was not in much immediate danger — but he’d be more worried if the winds were heavier. He planned to turn on his irrigation line to avoid any damage to his land in case the fire made its way there.
Bruce Freeman from Clos des Amis Winery and South Mountain Winery said if the fire reaches his property, “it will be another disaster in our life.”
On the Santa Paula side of the ridge, crews hoped to keep the fire from reaching petroleum equipment and assets.
Residents affected by Kincade Fire in northern California return home
In northern California, nearly 200,000 residents in the wine-growing Sonoma County were allowed to return home even as the 120-square-mile Kincade Fire continued to burn. At least 140 homes were destroyed.
Brenda Catelani choked up as she recalled driving back home to Windsor with her husband.
“I think when we left, and especially Sunday, we didn’t think we’d be coming back,” Catelani said, according to the Associated Press.
Pieces of burnt embers, burned leaves and ash littered the outside of her house.
The fire had come within 500 yards of their house – closer than the wine country fires of 2017 that killed 44 people and destroyed 8,900 homes and other buildings in Sonoma and Napa counties.
“We feel extremely lucky,” Catelani said.
Meanwhile, Pacific Gas & Electric finished restoring power to dozens of counties in the north and central regions after a third round of shutoffs this week designed to protect power lines from being damaged or toppled by high winds and sparking fires.
However, about 80,000 Southern California Edison users remained without power by late Thursday night.
This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Maria Fire explodes to 12 miles in Ventura County; residents evacuate