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Wildfire spurs evacuations and threatens homes in S. California

High winds and heat hindering crews as flames near Simi Valley

A U.S. Forest Service air tanker drops fire retardant Thursday in Oak Park, Calif. At least one home was lost.
A U.S. Forest Service air tanker drops fire retardant Thursday in Oak Park, Calif. At least one home was lost.
Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — A wind-whipped 16,000-acre wildfire raced across hills and canyons along the city's northwestern edge Thursday, threatening homes and forcing hundreds of people to evacuate.

Some 3,000 firefighters aided by aircraft struggled to protect ridgetop houses along the Los Angeles-Ventura county line, a rugged, brushy landscape west of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. Officials said the blaze was 5 percent contained as it burned toward such communities as Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Calabasas and Agoura.

Numerous homes were evacuated in nine areas, and the Red Cross reported 600 people had signed up to stay at five of its shelters. Poor air quality forced California State University at Northridge to cancel classes for the day.

At least one home and five other structures were lost, but 2,000 buildings had been saved by firefighters, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

"We are guardedly optimistic, if the weather cooperates, if the public cooperates," Yaroslavsky said. "This may end well for all of us, but weather is unpredictable in these parts, and everyone needs to be on guard."

Temperatures were in the high 90s but were expected to drop over the next few days while humidity rises.

"The winds have died down substantially, and that's going to be a big advantage for us in getting control," said Los Angeles County fire Capt. Kurt Schaefer. "With the weather changing, we should start to see the containment numbers go up."

Some gusts were reported on the fire lines, but there was no reappearance of the strong winds from the interior that fanned a small brush fire into a conflagration on Wednesday.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known.

Historically, some fires in the region have turned and burned through the Santa Monica Mountains to Malibu and the Pacific Ocean.

David Nenkervis, 64, was away from his home in Santa Susana Pass when it went up in flames. He returned to find he had also lost several vehicles and his dog was missing.

"When you lose everything it's tough to have plans. Right now, my brain is not working. It's all mush. I can't even think about what I'm going to do tomorrow," Nenkervis said.

Authorities said residents took evacuation orders seriously in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"I wasn't going to get stupid about it. There was only one way out, and it was getting real hot," said Jeff Johns, 48.

Actor Shelley Berman of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and his Bell Canyon neighbors evacuated Wednesday evening, taking a few items from the home he has lived in since 1984.

"We were sitting watching television, had finished a nice dinner, everything was fine. Other people were in serious trouble. Then suddenly, we were moving," said Berman, who went with his wife to a friend's house a few miles away in Westlake.

About 45 evacuees gathered at Canoga Park High School in the San Fernando Valley, where the Red Cross had set up cots and provided meals.

"Our house is still OK, but, oh, God, it's not a good feeling," said Phil Goldenberg, 53, who was at the school's gym with his wife and son.

Another large wildfire in Southern California was 50 percent contained after burning 1,160 acres in Riverside County. No homes were threatened.

So far this year, wildfires have charred 8.16 million acres nationwide, compared with 7.74 million acres by the same time last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.