Fire threatens ‘Shangri-La’

OJAI, Calif. (AP) — The biggest and most destructive of the windblown fires raking Southern California shut down one of the region’s busiest freeways Thursday and threatened Ojai, a scenic mountain town dubbed “Shangri-La” and known for its boutique hotels and New Age spiritual retreats.

Most of Ojai’s 7,000 residents were warned to clear out late Wednesday and patients unable to walk were moved from the Ojai Valley Community Hospital because of unprecedented, hurricane-force Santa Ana winds in the overnight forecast.

The winds turned out to be less fierce than expected, but firefighters still had to contend with gusts that fanned the fire to 150 square miles and put thousands of homes in jeopardy.

As firefighters tried to corral the Ventura fire and three major fires in the Los Angeles area, a blaze in rural San Diego County grew rapidly to 1,000 acres in hours.

Two people were burned in the blaze that destroyed five buildings and threatened 1,000 others around Bonsall, a small picturesque hilly community known for its equestrian facilities.

Along the coast between Ventura and Santa Barbara, tiny beach communities were under siege as fire leapt from steep hillsides across U.S. Highway 101.

“We drove through a wall of flames,” Wendy Frank said, describing her ordeal after evacuating her horses from Ojai on Wednesday night. “I didn’t know if we’d make it. I just put the accelerator down. I know we were going over 100 mph, we could have been going much more, and just hoped for the best.”

Fires flared up Thursday along the highway, forcing an evacuation of the dozens of homes at Faria Beach.

“Anyone in your homes still, you need to leave now,” a California Highway Patrol officer said through a loudspeaker while driving down a smoke-shrouded street. “The fire is here, you need to leave.”

Joseph Ruffner had left earlier in the week but returned and said he was staying put this time.

“This morning there was a wall of fire back right over here,” he said. “I didn’t think it was no big deal, but it’s coming back to burn what it didn’t burn yesterday.”

The highway, which runs the length of the state and is a major commuter corridor to Los Angeles, was closed intermittently along the 28-mile stretch between Ventura and Santa Barbara.

The Ventura and LA-area fires have put tens of thousands of people under evacuation orders and destroyed nearly 200 homes and buildings, a figure almost certain to rise.

A woman was found dead in a wrecked car in an evacuation zone near the city of Santa Paula, where the Ventura County blaze began Monday night, but officials could not immediately say whether the accident was fire-related.

In Ojai, the normally bustling town was practically vacant as an ominous dark plume hovered high above and flames glowed in the hills. The town has attracted artists, hippies and spiritual thinkers for generations.

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