Strong Santa Ana winds returned to Southern California on Sunday, fanning a huge wildfire that has scorched a string of communities west of Los Angeles. (Nov. 11)
LOS ANGELES — Residents gathered for a community meeting Sunday night in Woodland Hills shouted for answers about the status of their homes and wanted to know when they could return to them.
A crowd of about 250 people asked – and sometimes interrupted – public officials at Taft High School, an evacuation center filled by those who have fled the Woolsey and Hill fires in Southern California that have collectively burned nearly 90,000 acres since Thursday, according to Cal Fire.
Altogether, about 250,000 in the area were displaced at the time of the meeting, said Los Angeles County Sheriff Department Chief John Benedict. Residents expressed concerns about timelines for repopulation, rebuilding permits and independent pollution investigations, as well as frustrations about how officials allegedly did not communicate evacuation orders in some areas.
The Woolsey Fire, affecting Thousand Oaks, Oak Park, Westlake Village, Agoura Hills, West Hills, Simi Valley, Chatsworth, Bell Canyon, Hidden Hills, Malibu and Calabasas, was 15 percent contained and had torched 85,200 acres as of 8 p.m. PST Sunday.
The fire has claimed two lives, both adults, officials said Sunday night. Their bodies were found in unincorporated Malibu, where their vehicle was overcome by fire.
The Hill Fire, meanwhile, was 75 percent contained and had scorched 4,531 acres north of Malibu and south of Simi Valley, Cal Fire reported Sunday night.
Local state Sen. Henry Stern moderated the session, which included officials from Cal Fire, the California Highway Patrol, Los Angeles and Ventura County sheriff departments, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Department of Toxic Substances Control and emergency services.
Officials did not have many immediate answers, explaining that local governments will make decisions depending on conditions. A highway patrol official noted plans to reopen portions of Highway 101, one of the region’s primary roadways.
A disaster declaration requested by Gov. Jerry Brown was still pending Sunday night, according to FEMA.
The National Weather Service warned that extremely critical fire weather conditions would persist through Tuesday, likely causing rapid fire growth, extreme fire behavior and long-range spotting with existing fires and any new ignitions.
Bell Canyon resident Randy Piotroski, 60, evacuated his home of 15 years at 11:15 p.m. Thursday. The Woolsey Fire started only a quarter of a mile from his home, he said. He’s evacuated for fires three times in past years, but said this one is like nothing he has ever seen.
“It was like a war zone,” Piotroski said. “Helicopters flying every which way, cars people trying to get out all at once.”
His girlfriend, Joyce Robitaille, 61, said they left the house within five minutes. She got their cat, Amber, in her carrier, the car keys, jackets and then a sheriff told them to it was time.
Once Robitaille found their 10-year-old gray and white tabby cat, she said Amber scratched at her knowing something was happening.
“She ended up being the rock star of the trailer she’s in,” Robitaille said. “In fact, they were going around and taking selfies with her.”
Now the couple is staying at the other Woodland Hills evacuation center, Pierce College. The clothes they wore to the meeting were the same outfits they had on when evacuating.
Evacuee Suzette End, 61, said she usually finds herself on the other end of community meetings about fires. The West Lake Village resident has worked with a contractor specializing in rebuilding after fire damage for the past 23 years. End said she woke up choking because of the smoke on Friday morning and received organized evacuation orders via phone.
She did not have an emergency kit ready.
“I put on programs for pre-disaster preparedness, [but] I wasn’t prepared,” End said. “I’m able to instruct people what to do and how to do it, but when it comes to yourself, sometimes you don’t follow your own advice.”
End will be spending her birthday Monday with family in nearby Valley Village.They are waiting to hear when they can go back home, but know it is undamaged thanks to security cameras, she said.
Cal Fire officials expect full containment of the Woosley Fire on Nov. 17 and the Hill Fire on Nov. 15, according to advisories Sunday morning.
“We just want to go home,” Piotroski said. “And I’m sure everybody else does, too.”
Flare-ups were reported throughout Sunday north of Pepperdine University, West Hills and Bell Canyon, stoked by increased Santa Ana winds. The National Weather Service issued a wide-spread red flag warning, saying dry air, gusty winds and very dry fuel are creating “extremely critical fire weather conditions.” Gusts could potentially reach 70 mph.
At least 177 structures were destroyed by the Woolsey Fire as of Sunday morning, authorities said, and that number didn’t budge throughout the day.
Contributing: The Desert Sun.
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