THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — A city reeling from the tragedy of a mass shooting was under a siege of a different sort Friday as raging wildfires on both sides of the city forced widespread evacuations and shut down part of the main freeway to town.
Flames driven by powerful winds torched at least 150 homes in Southern California, prompting orders for 250,000 people — including some celebrities — to flee as the fire marched across the Santa Monica Mountains toward the sea. The cause of the blazes was not known.
For Thousand Oaks, which had been considered one of the safest cities in the nation before a gunman massacred 12 people at a country music bar, the spasm of violence jolted the city’s sense of security. Encroaching flames, despite the near-constant threat of fire in the bone-dry state, presented an entirely different hazard.
“It’s devastating. It’s like ‘welcome to hell,'” resident Cynthia Ball said about the dual disasters while she was outside the teen center serving as a shelter for evacuees. “I don’t even know what to say. It’s like we’re all walking around kind of in a trance.”
A day earlier, the facility had been the location where grieving family members had gathered and received the grim news on the fate of loved ones who had not returned from the Borderline Bar and Grill, where a Marine combat veteran went on a shooting rampage Wednesday. The investigation into what drove 28-year-old Ian David Long to kill was continuing even as the city about 40 miles from Los Angeles was under threat. Three-quarters of the city of 130,000 was under evacuation orders, and that likely included people affected by the shooting, Thousand Oaks Mayor Andy Fox said.
“Here we are just a few hours later talking now about another crisis right here in Thousand Oaks,” Fox said, making the distinction that the shooting victims and their families had experienced a permanent loss. “Those lives will never be recovered. Tonight we’re talking about a serious fire situation, but thankfully we have not lost a single life. And as difficult as it may be, homes can be rebuilt, property can be reacquired.”
In the city, flames creeping down a hillside were visible from a teen center on Janss Road.
Evacuees described harrowing escapes from flames that picked up unexpectedly Thursday afternoon. At the Vallecito mobile home park for seniors, the fire came so quickly that residents had no time to gather medications and documents.
Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy made a plea at a fire news conference to residents to help their neighbors during this difficult time. “We appreciate everybody’s efforts and kind prayers for all the people from our victims that lost their lives in the shooting to now what’s happening with people losing their homes,” he said.
Three major fires are burning in California. In addition to the Woolsey and Hill blazes burning in Southern Carolina, the Camp Fire in the north has left a town in ruins. At least nine people have been killed by that blaze, which burned 90,000 acres and destroyed more than 6,700 structures.