“We’re on guard:” California fire crews, homeowners brace for return of winds
LOS ANGELES — After a welcome lull in powerful winds that drove Southern California’s massive wildfire, crews and homeowners were bracing Wednesday for the return of potentially dangerous gusts that could revive the flames.
Some residents are watching from afar at hotels and evacuation centers, while others are waiting in their homes and hoping for the best.
Katy and Bob Zappala have stayed in their home in Santa Barbara, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, despite a mandatory evacuation order that’s been in place since Saturday.
“Our cars are packed, we have all our clothes and jewelry, so we’re ready to leave at a moment’s notice should we have to,” Katy Zappala, 74, said Wednesday. “We’re ready to leap in and leave, and we’re just keeping a good eye on the sky.”
The Zappalas and their cat, Madeline, haven’t left home since the evacuation order was issued because authorities wouldn’t allow them back in. They’re starting to run out of food and are hoping that if they make it through the next wave of winds, the ordeal will be over.
“It’s a critical day,” Zappala said. “You’re always nervous when the winds come up.”
Communities remain threatened in Ventura and Santa Barba counties.
Firefighters used two days of calm conditions to build containment lines and set controlled fires to clear dry brush ahead of so-called sundowner winds expected to whip up Wednesday afternoon.
“We are still on guard,” fire information officer Rudy Evenson said. “It’s been a very unpredictable fire and we just don’t know what these winds are going to do.”
The blaze is 60 percent contained and now the second-largest in California history. Officials said the new winds could cause it to grow into the state’s biggest fire ever.
Brian Bromberg, 57, and his fiancée, Wendy Frank, were staying at their home in Upper Ojai on Wednesday despite the winds and several brushes with death the first week of the fire.
Bromberg defended their 20-acre (8-hectare) property with buckets of water for hours as flames burned their neighbors’ homes and embers began hitting theirs on Dec. 5. The couple could feel the heat from the flames as they fled the property with their four horses and later drove through a wall of fire as it jumped a major highway.
“We’re basically waiting and seeing,” Bromberg said of Wednesday’s forecast. “I can’t believe these winds keep coming back. We thought it was over.”
Around his property, even though the flames went through more than two weeks ago, Bromberg said the ground was still smoking and smoldering.
“It’s scary,” he said. “It’s like it never ends.”
Those who remain evacuated are watching the blaze from afar, hoping their homes survive another possible onslaught.
“My husband has the feeling, ‘Why aren’t they letting us back in?'” said 82-year-old Curry Sawyer, whose Christmas tree is up still waiting for her grandkids to decorate it after she and her husband Ray were forced from their Santa Barbara home two weeks ago.
“But they’ve got hot spots up there and if we get more Santa Ana winds, we’re going to be back to square one,” she said. “I’m not sure we’re out of the woods.”
As of Tuesday, 432 people were still staying at evacuation shelters run by the Red Cross, agency spokeswoman Georgia Duncan said.
The shelters are preparing to stay open for Christmas and many agencies are donating toys so that the children there have presents to open.
One company already donated more than 100 bicycles, mostly for children.
Marolyn Romero-Sim, her husband and their 9-year-old daughter have been at an evacuation shelter in Ventura for two weeks after they watched their home of four years, an RV, burn in the wildfire, along with their beloved dog, their Christmas tree and a few presents.
The family is trying to save money for another RV but know they’ll probably be in the shelter for Christmas.
“I try not to let my daughter know, but I feel horrible,” the 34-year-old Romero-Sim said through tears Tuesday. “She’s being so understanding. She’s just thankful we’re going to be together for Christmas.”
The Thomas Fire, which began Dec. 4, is responsible for two deaths, has destroyed at least 750 homes, and has burned about 425 square miles (1,100 square kilometers).