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‘It was an inferno’: southern Californians left dumbstruck by week of wildfire hell

Residents of the picturesque town of Ojai and nearby Ventura describe their fright at the tempo and ferocity of wildfires ravaging the Los Angeles area

When the firestorm ravaging southern California came to the idyllic mountain farmland of the upper Ojai valley, 90 minutes’ drive northwest of Los Angeles, Deon de Wet thought he was ready.

He had thick firemen’s hoses with brass nozzles set up around his property, a farmhouse which doubles as a yoga studio and mending centre. He was dressed in a thick coating and winter muffler which he doused with water so he could withstand intense heat, if necessary, to defend the home that he and his wife have enjoyed for the past nine years.

From his vantage point, he had been able to look down to where the flame had started, in the hills above the valley town of Santa Paula, and tracing the progress of its sinister orange light as fierce breezes caused it to whip up and down canyons and depict ever closer.

But de Wet was not ready , not for this. A transformer explosion in the hills, mailing power lines crashing into the mountain chaparral and creating a whole new front of flames and heat. With the winds now reaching 80 mph, his neighborhood was engulfed at dizzying speed.

” I watched as one structure after the other would simply erupt and burn, ignite and smolder ,” he remembered.” It was an inferno .”

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Soon burning embers had winged on to his guest house and determined it alight. No sooner had he put out that burn than an oak tree directly above his donkeys and ponies lighted up. De Wet and his neighbors were lucky to have a fire truck on hand, but there were too many emergencies breaking out and nowhere near enough resources to respond to all of them.

By the time the night was over, de Wet’s house was gone, and so was a carport where he continued his motorbikes and one of his autoes. His turtles boiled in their turtle pond, and roughly half of his bird-dogs, cats, chickens and ducks died.

In a week of hell across some of southern California’s most beautiful and treasured landscapes, de Wet’s story has been echoed hundreds of hours. On the night he lost his house, the flames roared down the canyons to the oceanside metropoli of Ventura, igniting hundreds of the house and coming close to destroying the heart of the city. By the next day, three burns had erupted in Los Angeles, including one that threatened Rupert Murdoch’s hillside vineyards in the super-rich enclave of Bel Air. A subsequent fire broke out near the camp pendelton marine corps base north of San Diego.

With no let-up in the desert breezes that were fanning the flames, the flames were, as of Friday, margining up the coast towards Santa Barbara.

Like the burns that ravaged Santa Rosa and other parts of northern Californiain October, these have been fast, ferocious and more threatening to populated areas than any flame in memory.

Flames burn on a hillside behind Highway 101 north of Ventura, California. Photo: Noah Berger/ AP

” I’ve been here since the 1980 s and this is the worst I’ve ever lived through ,” said Timothy Teague, a photographer who lives in Ojai. Although personally untouched by the flames, he learned over such courses of the week that the avocado and citrus farm where he grew up in Santa Paula had been leveled, that a house in the hills are subordinate to his sister’s son was run, and that a cousin living on the beach north of Ventura had watched the palm trees across the street explode and narrowly escaped losing her home, too.

Fire season rarely stretches so far into the winter months, but southern California has endured drought for five of the past six years and has been without significant rain since last spring. The dry gusts that blow in from the Mojave desert are also unusual in December, and rarely last more than got a couple of periods. This time, they are forecast to jolt for a few weeks or more.

On top of that, many of the affected areas have had a dangerous build-up of brush- in Ojai’s case, since the last major flame in 1985. Heavy use of groundwater by farmers has separated many tree roots from reliable sources of moisture, which not only causes the trees to ignite more fiercely but created underground rivers of heat and flame that have taken part in the fires’ scaring speed.

” This place is a tinderbox ,” said Connor Jones, who has expended the past few decades building a permaculture farm on a ridge above Ojai and came close to losing it.” We’re assuring a desertification of the landscape … which favors this sort of catastrophic fire instead of the low-level periodic fires we used to have .”

The first flame broke out near St Thomas Aquinas college above Santa Paula at dinner time on Monday evening. Within 3 hours, it had spread not only to Ojai but across several canyons to downtown Ventura, where it took the local population almost completely by surprise.

A burned out auto near Ojai, California.’ This place is a tinderbox.’ Photograph: Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

Trinity Wheeler, a portrait photographer, knew something was incorrect because she was working late at her downtown studio when the power used to go. The next thing she noticed was the gale-force breeze and ash in the air. Then she seemed up at the sky.

” The clouds were like something out of a movie, so angry, so threatening. It was almost biblical .”

The town was eerily quiet, but in the hills above flame was pouring down like a river.

Wheeler and her husband began calling friends and banging on people’s doors. In the apparent absence of an warning system- something local politicians are now saying requirements an urgent reason- neighbors roused each other and began fleeing.

Eventually, the police toured the most endangered streets and barked warnings through the megaphones on their cruisers.

” We were given less than 10 minutes to go out ,” recalled Cherie Eulau, a high school history teach. By the time she and her husband left, their garage was in flames and the fucking truck that raced to their street had to leave again to pick up extra sea because the fire hydrants weren’t working.

By the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Ventura fire department was battle to save the town. Occupants scattered- to the beach, to neighboring townships- and appeared back at the familiar mounds now turned a solid red and orange. A botanical garden immediately above city hall burned to a crisp.

As day broke, Ventura was over the worst, but in Ojai the nightmare was continuing. The flames moved steadily westwards toward the main Ojai valley- an area of idyllic charm and pink-tinged sundowns that have all along captured the imagination of spiritualists, tourists and Hollywood film-makers- and the town middle with its clock tower and arcaded main street.

Cattle on a ranch in Ojai. Photograph: Chiu/ Zuma Wire/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Meditation Mount, a local beauty spot with a position in all the regions of the hollow, erupted in flames mid-morning. Nearby, a Scottish-born environmentalist named David White defended his property as best he had been able to, turning on the sprinklers in his fruit orchards and hoping for the best. His house survived.

A few ridges over, Connor Jones watched the burn fury ever closer to his property. A reservoir he excavated only a few years ago was too empty to be much use, so he rushed to his parent’s house nearby and set up a pump to empty their swimming pool instead.

From Tuesday into Thursday, he watched the ridge directly above his property burn. Every time he saw a place fire break out on his side of the ridge, he raced over with hand tools to turn over the soil and stamp out the flames. The rubber on the soles of his boots was soon half-melted.

Connor Jones stands outside a structure on his farm. Photograph: Andrew Gumbel for the Guardian

Wednesday night saw something of a reprieve for Ojai, as the winds dipped and, unexpectedly, moved off in a different direction. As many as 1,000 fire fighters from all over California and Oregon expended much of that night in the hills protecting the town.

By Friday, the region was in the midst of an uneasy letup. Miraculously, merely one death was reported- of a woman who drove her automobile off the road as she was fleeing her valley home near Santa Paula. Many towns, though, continue its work choked in thick smoking, and even residents who returned to their homes were acutely aware that a altered in gust direction over the weekend could place them in danger anew.

They also wasted no time worrying about the fires of the future and the likely effects of global warming on the sensitive surrounding of coastal California. Environmentalists like White and Jones pointed to structures that survived the fire- including some experimental modified adobe arrangements in the hills above Ojai- and said California would have to rethink its constructing codes and approved materials.

Others were glad simply to have survived.” There’s a script we’re dedicated when we lose everything, that these are just possessions ,” said Timothy Teague.” That’s easy to say in the moment. I just feel for these people .”

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