# Crews from several Southland departments battle flames whipped by gusty Santa Anas. Thick smoke closes several schools.

By Fred Alvarez and Steve Chawkins, Times Staff Writers

Flames driven by hot Santa Ana winds swooped over brush-covered Ventura hillsides Friday, licking at homes near the city's historic downtown and keeping residents on edge well into the night.

Although no houses had been destroyed as of Friday evening, firefighters were fearful that on-again, off-again gusts predicted for this morning might force a tide of flame into hillside neighborhoods.

More than 1,200 firefighters from throughout Southern California poured into town to fight the blaze, which started about 3:30 a.m. in rugged, unpopulated School Canyon just north of the Ventura County city. By Friday evening, it had burned 4,000 acres, officials said.

The massive showing allowed crews to protect homes in the fire's path, much as they did at the larger Topanga fire two months ago. They had enough crews to cut a firebreak around a threatened local landmark known as Two Trees, a pair of blue-gum eucalyptus trees on a prominent ridgeline above the city.

The wild card, however, was the weather.

Before dawn Friday, Santa Ana winds were whipping through the canyons at more than 30 mph and gusting at speeds even higher, said Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Joe Luna. Fierce winds were forecast for 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. this morning, although breezes Friday night were expected to be mild.

Luna said firefighters aimed to hem in the blaze, keeping it from heading north toward Ojai and east toward Santa Paula. Authorities hoped to have the blaze contained by 6 p.m. today and fully under control by 6 p.m. Sunday.

"It looks a lot more encouraging now that it did at 3:30 this morning," he said Friday evening.

For much of Friday, thick smoke shrouded the city, forcing the closure of a middle school and several private schools. One firefighter was treated for a minor injury, officials said.

In at least one neighborhood, residents were urged to evacuate. Nervous homeowners in other nearby areas gathered their pets and piled their valuables in their cars, just in case.

As firetrucks from Anaheim, Huntington Beach and West Covina rumbled up a narrow hillside lane, residents gave them a standing ovation. One woman rushed out with bags of chips and other snacks, thanking the firefighters for their service.

On Aliso Street near downtown, residents awoke Friday morning to such dense smoke that they were unable to see the houses across from them, but they could hear the roar of flames on a ridgeline just above.

Real estate brokers Norm and Cindee McDaniel packed their Chevy Tahoe with important paperwork, jewelry, photographs and their four cats, and then pointed the vehicle down the narrow road leading downtown. As his wife sat behind the wheel with the engine running, Norm McDaniel ran to hose down the backyard and hastily remove items that could catch fire. The flames raced to the back fence and stopped. He had been prepared. Like others in this subdivision, he had cleared brush within 100 feet of his home, as required by law. He had a sprinkler system in place to keep the hillside green and flames at bay.

"The flames burned right up to here, hit this green stuff and then stopped," he said. "It was like an amazing blanket."

Up and down roads threading through hillside neighborhoods with drop-dead ocean views, flying embers sparked spot fires. Neighbors clustered on sidewalks, their eyes fixed on the advancing flames.

Aircraft dropped a veil of orange fire retardant on burning hillsides, and helitankers hovered over the coast, scooping up 2,000 gallons of seawater at a time before heading across downtown to attack the flames threatening million-dollar homes just a minute or two away.

John Capra, 60, was among the many hillside residents fending off flames with garden hoses.

After glowing embers started raining down on his Mariposa Drive property, Capra was told by hard-pressed firefighters working nearby to soak his place down as best he could.

For four hours, he and his son Paul, 26, furiously drenched flare-ups around their home, aiming the hose into exploding pockets of thick brush.

"It was hot," said the elder Capra, "and I mean it was roaring."

Next door, a hot tub was set afire by drifting embers, leaving only a scorched spot in the yard.

Ventura firefighter Barry Simmons was called in to work from his smoke-blanketed hillside home. He spent the day his 58th birthday on the fire line while his wife, Anne, held down the fort, watching the flames race toward their home.

"When you see it coming over the ridge, it gives you a healthy respect for the flames," she said.

The last fire to char much of the same terrain was in October 1996 and was doused by a sudden unpredicted and unseasonal rain. Longtime resident Bill Waller said this blaze was much faster, whipped by fierce morning winds.

"I thought we were safe it was a mile and a half away when I woke up," Waller said. "But within a half hour, flames were just pouring off of the hillside."

source: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la...=la-home-local