Residents stunned by speed of Ventura County wildfires

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When Mohamad Tabatabai left for work Sept. 28, he never thought that he wouldn’t be able to re-enter his one-month-old home because of a wildfire.

“I left to work, and then my wife called me to tell me firefighters were telling her to leave the house,” Tabatabai said. His wife and their 20-month-old daughter later found safety at a friend’s house.

Tabatabai is a resident of Bell Canyon, one of the earliest communities affected by brush fires that began burning along the Los Angeles-Ventura county line Wednesday afternoon. The fire later made its way further southwest toward Calabasas, Hidden Hills, Agoura and Simi Valley, prompting both voluntary and mandatory evacuations.

According to the Ventura County Fire Department, the so-called Topanga fire scorched more than 20,000 acres by late Friday. The VCFD estimated damages to be around $3 million, with the cause of the fire still under investigation.

As of late Friday, VCFD said there had been damage to three single-family dwellings and three additional structures.

Sherry Khanbabapour, another Bell Canyon resident, took two of her dogs with her as she evacuated, but almost nothing else.

“I grabbed my keys, my kids, and my dogs and that was it,” Khanbabapour said.

Khanbabapour managed to return to her home to get her husband’s diabetes medication, but was unable to recover her daughter’s dog from the burning terrain.

Los Angeles County Fire Inspector John Mancha said on Thursday that more than 3,000 firefighters had been deployed to fight the fires.

“We cannot exhaust our resources, but we do the best we can,” Mancha said.

“These fires can be so unpredictable,” he said regarding how long the fire could last. “It could be five hours, 24 hours, or one week.”

A five-year drought and the near record rains have made brush grow thicker and higher, Mancha said. Santa Ana winds and very low humidity rates have also posed significant challenges for firefighters.

Mandatory and voluntary evacuations began early, officials said at a press conference on Thursday afternoon, in part to avoid any criticism similar to what was made against local, state and federal government officials following Hurricane Katrina evacuations efforts.

Officials emphasized how their efforts were unified between counties, city, and state, as well as organized.

After city and county officials issued mandatory evacuations, several American Red Cross evacuations centers were established at Canoga Park Senior High School, Pierce College and Borchard Community Center, among others, to provide shelter for residents from potentially fire-stricken communities.

Ethan Zinner, senior recreation management major at CSUN, assisted evacuees at the Thousand Oaks Recreation Center and said the center was full by about 1:30 p.m. on Thursday.

“We are full with approximately 300 evacuees here at the center,” Zinner said.

At the Santa Susana Recreation Center, Willie Ruiz, who works at the center, said 12 evacuees had shown up by mid-afternoon Thursday.

“Red Cross is here to set up (the evacuees) with food and cots to sleep in,” Ruiz said.

Most of the evacuees were from Simi Valley and Santa Susana Knolls, according to Ruiz. As more evacuees started to arrive at shelters, firefighters continued to plot the containment of the fire along approximately 15 miles of fire line, according to the VCFD.

By 1 p.m. Thursday, more than 50 vehicles had surrounded Fire Station 106 at the intersection of Roscoe Street and Lena Avenue. Hundreds of safety personnel found shade from the 90-degree weather along a tree-lined street and drank water while they waited on stand-by before being activated.

“Down here, we don’t know what it’s like at the fire line right now,” said Capt. Jeff Ramsey of the Alameda County Fire Department, who along with 20 firefighters in five fire engines arrived after a six-hour drive. Within an hour, Ramsey said he received their assignment, was given the group’s portable radios and was sent to battle the blaze.

Local and statewide fire and law enforcement agencies filled the parking port of the fire station, where employees of a nearby business quickly unloaded food and water out of a minivan before leaving.

“We figured (we’d do it) because it’s such a hot day in the sun with those uniforms,” said Sandy Leslie, manager of the Calabasas Inn.

Along with the owner and her daughter, Leslie donated 135 ham and turkey sandwiches and a dozen cases of bottled water and sports drinks.

Two blocks west of the Roscoe Street and Valley Circle intersection, residents who had been evacuated the night before waited to find out when they could return to their homes.

The Los Angeles Police Department blocked traffic and set up a checkpoint where motorcycle officers made dozens of trips escorting evacuated residents back to their homes. Similar checkpoints were set up at Topanga Canyon and the Santa Susana Pass and at the intersection of Woolsey Canyon and Valley Circle, according to an LAPD police officer.

The police allowed residents in cars to return to their homes for 15 minutes under police escort to pick up personal belongings. One resident said that he walked alone back to his home to retrieve his pets while other residents waited in the line of cars along Roscoe.

“I want to get valuable papers and my wedding album,” said Greg Imlay, who had sat in his car for more than an hour. “But mostly I have my cats that I’m concerned about.”

Imlay, whose wife is on vacation in San Jose, said he spent Wednesday night at his parents’ house in Van Nuys after finding out about the mandatory evacuation while he was at work. He said that when he slept at his parent’s house during the 2003 fire, one of his three cats did not adjust to the new environment very well, and he was only planning on taking two with him this time.

“I’ll set out some food and water and she’ll be alright,” Imlay said.

Evacuated residents of the Mountain View and Summit Mobile Home Parks in Canoga Park, who gathered at the intersection of Roscoe Boulevard and Valley Circle, said the flames reached the edge of their property late Wednesday night.

“The ground was burned right up to the back of my house,” said resident Jeff Ross. “The firefighters had hooked up to a fire hydrant and were on the roof of my house shooting the flames.”

Ross and Cheryl Zamora, his sister-in-law, stayed near the checkpoint until midnight on Wednesday. They eventually went to sleep at her son’s house in Canoga Park.

While thick dark plumes of smoke rose out of the nearby canyon and obscured the sun, causing some evacuees to don surgical masks, Ross and Zamora sat in folding chairs along the sidewalk wondering what was happening to their homes. Zamora said they moved into the area two months after the fires in fall of 2003.

For Barbara Jean, a seven-year resident of the Mountain View Mobile Home Park, this was not just the second fire within a two-year period for her, but also the third time this month that she has been surrounded by despair and destruction, she said.

As a volunteer with the American Red Cross for the past 22 years, Jean said she served as a chaplain in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina hit and also was present when Hurricane Rita made landfall.

“I understand what it feels like to lose so much in a catastrophic disaster,” Jean said.

She said that she slept at her mother’s home Wednesday night and came back on Thursday to pick up belongings and was planning on heading to the Red Cross shelter later that night to eat and sleep.

Jean, who also volunteered overseas during the Gulf War, said that emerging unscathed from the 2003 fires lulled her into a false sense of security.

“This time I was in denial. Last time everything went OK. So I thought this time too would be OK. I was wrong,” she said.

Besides saving her collection of Bibles and files of spe
cial papers, Jean said that there was also a positive side.

“I’ve met more neighbors out here than in the seven years I’ve lived here,” she said.

For most of the residents of Bell Canyon, this is not the first fire scare they have received. In fall of 2003 wildfires burned in that area, among others, for nearly ten days.

Resident Dan Covas, a race car welder, said the fire does not scare him, but added that this is the worst fire he has ever seen.

“(Wednesday) night I was kicking dirt into a fire that was burning right next door,” Covas said.

“The flames were 30 feet high today, and we have no power,” he said

Covas said he would sleep in his home again Thursday as he did Wednesday. Like most of the community residents, he seemed hopeful that his community would be fine.

“My pool’s full of ash, but I’ll live,” Covas said.

Veronica Rocha contributed to this report. Connie Llanos, Julio Morales and Rocha can be reached at city@sundial.csun.edu.