CAMARILLO, Calif. – Each time wind-driven embers sparked new blazes or a wall of fire leaped a Southern California hillside and came charging toward hundreds of homes, an army of firefighters was there to douse or direct the flames away.
As a result, the fire that broke out Thursday quickly moved through the Camarillo Springs area without destroying a single home.
Firefighters were hoping for the same success Friday, as the fire raged out of control miles away near the coast.
Fifteen structures in the area 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles sustained some damage, and other homes in a wooded area were threatened Friday by the blaze that roared across 28 square miles. Some 900 firefighters using engines, aircraft, bulldozers and other equipment had it just 20 percent contained.
The good fortune of the Camarillo Springs area came after years of planning and knowing that sooner or later just such a conflagration was going to strike.
“When developers want to go into an area that is wild-land, it’s going to present a unique fire problem,” Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Tom Kruschke said. “And you have to be prepared for that.”
Camarillo Springs, which was nothing more than rugged backcountry when homes began to go up there 30 years ago, was well prepared.
Its homes were built with sprinkler systems and fireproof exteriors from the roofs to the foundations. Residents are required to clear brush and other combustible materials to within 100 feet of the dwellings, and developers had to make sure the cul-de-sacs that fill the area’s canyons were built wide enough to accommodate the emergency vehicles seen on TV racing in to battle the flames.
“All of our rooftops are concrete tile and all of the exteriors are stucco,” said Neal Blaney, a board member of The Springs Homeowners Association and a 15-year resident. “There’s no wood, so there’s almost no place for a flying ember to land and ignite something.”
When the blaze broke out, Blaney said, volunteer emergency officers in the neighborhood gave the first alert to residents. As a result, when the flames got close, residents were ready to get out of the way of firefighters.
Residents in the area are also vigilant about clearing brush from the hillsides next to their yards, Kruschke said. Normally, firefighters remind people in such areas to do that every June, but in Camarillo Springs people do it every few months.
The type of blaze that hit the area usually doesn’t strike Southern California wild-land until September or October, after the summer has dried out hillside vegetation. But the state has seen a severe drought during the past year, with the water content of California’s snowpack only 17 percent of normal.
That created late-summer conditions by May, and when hot Santa Ana winds and high temperatures arrived this week, the spring flames that firefighters routinely knock down once or twice a year quickly roared up a hillside — out of control.
“It’s just the beginning of May and we already have a 10,000-plus acre fire that’s burning intensely,” Kruschke said. “That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season.”