KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
At least five major wildfires are now burning here in Southern California. The biggest one is in Ventura County. It's about an hour north of us here at NPR West. It has burned about 100,000 acres so far, stretching from downtown Ventura near the coast all the way up into the hills toward the mountain town of Ojai. That's where reporter Stephanie O'Neill is right now. And she's with us. Hey, Stephanie.
STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Hey there.
MCEVERS: I understand you saw some pretty dramatic stuff last night. Tell us about it.
O'NEILL: Yeah. It was really crazy. It was about 7:30 last night. The northern mountains surrounding Ojai exploded into this mass of fast-moving flames that took all of us by surprise. Even firefighters were taken by surprise. The flames were fueled by these erratic winds in the mountains and the decades-old dry, dry brush. And this caused the wildfire to race west so fast that it was, like, just a matter of minutes before a miles-long stretch of flames cast this bright orange glow over the entire Ojai Valley. It was phenomenal to see, and also very scary to see and frightening to be in the middle of. I packed my dog and cat in the car just in case I had to literally run out of town with flames chasing me.
MCEVERS: Wow. But you didn't have to evacuate?
O'NEILL: I didn't evacuate. Most everybody else did. But the flames did not come into town last night because the winds just kept blowing them the other direction. So we kind of dodged a bullet last night.
MCEVERS: Wow. What's happening today?
O'NEILL: Well, the thick smoke is in the air everywhere. Ash continues to rain down on the town and the valley. We have all sorts of engine companies coming in. Firefighters from all over the state and elsewhere are here. I bumped into several crews from the Portland, Ore., area. We have state firefighters and others just rolling in all day long. I spent this morning in a hot spot in a canyon about five miles outside of downtown Ojai, and lots of flames were burning on the ridges above some large estate homes. But the real concern is that the winds are expected to come soon and could ignite the brush around those homes and really cause another firestorm in that canyon and elsewhere.
MCEVERS: What's the forecast for the wind later today and tonight?
O'NEILL: Well, right now the forecast is for winds that could reach, you know, well, minimum of, like, 40 miles per hour, they're saying. And those are expected to blow toward Ojai. So that's a big concern for those of us who are here. That could mean, you know, severe damage to the more populated areas. And these are those hot, dry Santa Ana winds we've been talking about all week that have been spreading the fire and just making it so large. Ventura County Fire Captain Garrett Prater has 20 years' experience with these fires here in Ventura County, and he says the wind is making this the most unpredictable fire he's ever battled.
GARRETT PRATER: The fire is doing at will what it wants to do. I was on it the first night, and I was shocked to hear that it was already to Ventura the first night. I would have never imagined that worst-case scenario in my worst nightmare.
MCEVERS: That fire captain sounds pretty tired. How are those fire crews doing?
O'NEILL: Yeah, they are tired. He was really tired. When I talked to Prater just before noon today he'd been on the clock already about 26 hours. And he was waiting for relief to come in as they were standing guard in front of these homes since midnight last night and had been working before that. So there are about 2,500 firefighters now on the job trying to help them. And most of them arrived yesterday and have been working nonstop. They're trying to save as many houses as possible, but many homes have been destroyed. The count is unknown until the fire subsides a little bit. But these firefighters here in Ventura County really aren't used to that, and it's a big blow to their morale.
MCEVERS: I know a lot of people have left the area. What are people who are staying behind doing?
O'NEILL: Everybody's spraying their homes. Some are spraying their rooftops. And I've been spraying my own home and my shrubbery as well. So we're just preparing for the worst.
MCEVERS: Reporter Stephanie O'Neill in Ojai, Calif., thank you very much.
O'NEILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.