‘It Burns and It Keeps Burning’: Scenes From Southern California’s Wildfires


LOS ANGELES — It felt like the whole world was burning down.

Up and down Southern California’s hillsides, canyons and coastline, walls of wind-driven wildfire raced through neighborhoods like advancing armies, burning 116,000 acres across Ventura and Los Angeles Counties by Thursday morning. Flames lapped the freeways that thousands of people used to evacuate.

Galaxies of ash and embers rained down on firefighters. Palm trees and pines flared up like matchsticks. Homeowners desperately sprayed their roofs with sprinklers and garden hoses to guard against the fires, only to see their efforts dried out and undone by the lashing Santa Ana winds. They stood in their yards and prayed. They fled 30-foot flames, and said they had never seen fires like this.

“We’ve always been under threat of fire; we’re used to it,” said Suzanne White, who drove past curtains of flames above the 101 freeway as she fled her home in the mountain-fringed town of Ojai. “But this year, the fires are raging so fast and furiously that you can’t get ahead of them.”

“It burns,” she said, “and it keeps burning.”

As new fires erupted on Thursday and strengthening winds posed new threats, some people agonized over whether to stay and defend their homes or join the thousands who had already evacuated. Along Faria Beach, on the edge of the Pacific in Ventura, Steve Andruszkewicz, 75, and his wife, Gloria, had packed both cars in case the firefighters battling spot blazes nearby told them to go.

Two evacuees, Gloria and Steve Andruskewicz, outside their home on Faria Beach in Ventura.CreditHilary Swift for The New York Times

The power was out and an acrid tang of smoke hung in the air. A light snow of ash and burned needles and leaves had drifted down onto their home.

Farther inland in Ventura, Paul Sezzi warily watched the sky and reflected on his losing battle earlier in the week to save his 77-year-old mother’s home, which his father had built by hand.

After his mother fled, Mr. Sezzi, 51, returned to the home and tried to stave off destruction with a garden hose. He could see a glow behind the ridgeline above him, and as the winds kicked up, the hillsides erupted into quilts of fire. Flames skittered down the hills toward avocado orchards, neighboring streets — and him.

“It was like someone had turned on a burner from a range,” Mr. Sezzi said. “The fire, the ash, the smoke — everything right toward me. It’s coming at me, getting in my eyes.”

As the flames began to surround him, Mr. Sezzi decided his battle to save the house was lost, and he had to go. The fire destroyed the house. It burned so hot that it cracked the fireplace and melted a pan Mr. Sezzi’s mother used to make Christmas cakes into a “glob of molten metal.”

Paul and Steve Sezzi sorted through the remains of their mother’s home in Ventura on Wednesday.CreditHilary Swift for The New York Times

“Everything is just gone,” he said on Thursday from his own home in Ventura — safe for now — where he was warily looking out the window and watching the winds. “It’s really scary. You just don’t know. We never think that the fire could reach us, but everybody’s a little bit on edge. Because where do we evacuate to?”

Trish Valenteen said she had stood in her yard in Ventura and prayed for the fire to pass by the house she shares with her 84-year-old father. They were prepared to evacuate on Tuesday night, but ended up staying. She thought they were safe, but on Thursday morning, the Santa Ana winds carried a grimmer omen.

“I’m listening to the wind start up again and realizing that we could be in for more destruction,” Ms. Valenteen said.

In the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, Amanda Saviss, 26, woke up Wednesday and began packing as much as she could from her family’s home on Moraga Drive. Even before they saw firefighters down the hill from her home, the family knew they needed to get out.

A firefighter in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles on Wednesday.CreditJae C. Hong/Associated Press

“It was in the air everywhere,” Ms. Saviss said. “Ash, smoke, all of it. We took everything we could, our whole lives — clothes, pictures, jewelry.”

When they realized they had forgotten to water down some dry bushes nearby, a firefighter allowed them to walk back quickly. None of their neighbors had dared to ignore the evacuation orders, she said. “That would be crazy.”

They spent much of the morning at a cousin’s house, glued to the local news. By late afternoon, the family of five started to look for a comfortable place for them and their dog. They landed at Hotel Angeleno, an iconic cylindrical tower just west of the 405 freeway and opposite the burning Bel-Air neighborhood.

They tried to find their home from the window of a high building but never managed to spot it. They were assured by reports that the flames never reached their street.

For the latest news on the wildfires, read our latest live updates here and sign up for California Today, our daily newsletter on the state here.

Jennifer Medina reported from Los Angeles and Jack Healy from Boulder, Colo. Reporting was contributed by Mark Storer from Camarillo, Calif., and Hilary Swift from Ventura.


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