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.
U.S. & World
News from around the country and around the globe
As firefighters tried to corral the Ventura fire and at least three other fires in the Los Angeles area, a blaze in rural San Diego County expanded to 4 square miles in just a matter of hours.
The fire tore through the tightly packed Rancho Monserate Country Club community in the small city of Fallbrook, known for its avocado orchards and horse ranches. At least two people were hospitalized with burns. Dozens of trailer homes in a retirement community were destroyed, and multiple race horses at an elite training facility died in the blaze.
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 101 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 more than 400 homes and buildings, a figure officials say is still likely 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.
A vegetation fire broke out in an unincorporated area of Murrieta Thursday afternoon, prompting a response from 140 firefighters.
The blaze was reported around 1:14 p.m. PST in the area of Los Alamos and Liberty roads and was burning at "moderate to rapid" speeds, according to the Riverside County Fire Department. By around 2:30 p.m., the fire had erupted to 100 acres.
Firefighters from Huntington Beach and Orange County were battling a brush fire in Huntington Beach on Thursday morning. The size of the fire was not immediately clear, but officials' said firefighters' water drops had the fire "under control" by 10:45 a.m.
In Ojai, the normally bustling town was practically vacant as an ominous dark plume hovered high above and flames glowed in the hills. Known as "Shangri-La," both for its role as the stand-in for a Himalayan utopia in the 1937 Frank Capra movie "Lost Horizon" and for the magical vibe it is said to have, the town has attracted artists, hippies and spiritual thinkers for generations.
Ash fell like snowflakes on citrus orchards scattered around town and on Spanish-style architecture as firefighters parked their trucks around houses in anticipation of winds picking back up.
Some businesses were closed, but staples could be found at Pat's Liquor, where Hank Cheyne-Garcia loaded up with supplies to fuel through another edgy night keeping sentry on the fire.
"It got a little too intense yesterday with the wind kicking up," he said. "There was just so much smoke. Yesterday you couldn't see the street."
Ojai is a popular getaway some 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles for visitors looking for tranquil hikes, farm-to-table dining and spa treatments that include aromatherapy and a modern-day sweat lodge.
Like many of the places that have seen repeated catastrophic fires, such as Malibu or Bel-Air, which continued to smolder from a fire that destroyed four homes Wednesday, it is an alluring place to live but one that is also prone to wildfires.
"Part of it is the natural beauty of the area," said Ventura County Fire Capt. Brendan Ripley. "The brush-covered hills, the rock formations, the steep terrain ... all of that helps to promote very active fire behavior."
Ojai's downtown burned 100 years ago, and it has been skirted by two of the biggest fires in California history: one in 1932 and another in 1985.
The town is typically sheltered from the strong Santa Ana winds that blow in from the desert, Ripley said. But it is surrounded by dry brush that has not burned in years.
Myers reported from Ventura. Associated Press writers Brian Melley, Chris Weber and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.