Fast-moving Maria fire in rural Southern California threatens avocado, citrus crops

Nearly 9,000 acres had burned within a matter of hours after the fire touched off Thursday night.

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By David K. Li and Dennis Romero

The latest Southern California wildfire has torched more than 9,400 rural acres and threatens millions of dollars worth of avocados, oranges and lemons, authorities said Friday.

The Maria fire ignited atop South Mountain, near the farming communities of Santa Paula, Somis and Saticoy, about 6:15 p.m. Thursday and continued to rage Friday, officials said.

On Friday night Southern California Edison, the utility that serves the area, confirmed that 13 minutes before the blaze was reported, the utility "began to re-energize a 16kV circuit near the area of the reported location of the fire after it had been de-energized pursuant to SCE’s Public Safety Power Shutoff protocol," spokeswoman Susan Cox said.

Utilities up and down the state joined the Bay Area's Pacific Gas & Electric in trying to prevent wildfires sparked by electricity equipment by cutting power to millions of Californians.

Cox emphasized that the cause of the Maria fire was still unknown. She said SCE would cooperate with officials looking into the origins of the blaze.

More than 1,300 firefighters are battling the blaze that's threatening about 2,700 homes, roughly 65 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, officials said.

At least two dwellings have been destroyed, NBC Los Angeles reported.

The Ventura County Fire Department has brought in help from across the region to battle both the Maria fire and the Easy fire, which started Wednesday near Simi Valley.

Friday evening authorities expressed some optimism about the Maria firefight, even as dangerous red flag weather conditions, denoted by dry offshore winds, were expected to be in effect through 6 p.m. Saturday.

"There was some progress, then a lot of challenges," Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen told reporters at a news conference. "We are not out of the woods yet. We still have 24 hours of critical fire weather ahead of us."

National Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Kittell told reporters that the unfavorable winds were expected to weaken by Saturday night.

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Firefighters have been battling flames and drones which have been slowing water-dropping planes and helicopters, according to Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub. He urged drone operators to steer clear of the fire zone.

"This creates a very significant hazard for our airborne firefighting assets and causes them to land and stop firefighting until that small aircraft is out of the area,” Ayub said. “It hampers our firefighting efforts.

Earlier Friday, Chief Lorenzen said saving homes and farms would be his department's top priorities.

"We are actively engaged in structure protection, as well as protecting the agricultural assets there with avocados and citrus orchards that have significant values," he said.

Ventura County, and Santa Paula in particular, is one of the region's major agricultural hubs.

Santa Paula calls itself the "Citrus Capital of the World" and the city's website says it's "surrounded by rolling hills and rugged mountain peaks in addition to orange, lemon and avocado groves."

In 2018, Ventura County produced $244 million worth of lemons, $103 million in avocados, $20 million of Valencia oranges and $17 million in mandarins and tangelos, according to latest figures from the Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.

Flames came within a mile of the area's biggest grower, Limoneira Company, which produces about 375 million lemons and 2 million pounds of avocados a year on its 3,000-acre spread in Santa Paula.

By evening, the Ventura County Fire Department said that its crews had mostly kept the fire "away from the area’s orchards and farms."

Breathing a sigh of relief, Limoneira President and CEO Harold Edwards said flames appeared to be moving away from his farm.

"It looks scary as hell, but I don't think it'll ultimately have much of an effect on us," Edwards told NBC News, adding the fire department's "response has been incredible, everyone's been on it."

Ventura County Chief Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Korinne Bell is hopeful there won't be major damage, but she's already heard reports of some lost lemons.

"I doubt there'll be none, there’s likely going to be some" lost crops, Bell told NBC News. "We haven't been able to get out into those areas because they're still on fire."

Ventura County Supervisor Kelly Long, whose district includes Santa Paula, said some lettuce, celery and strawberries have also been lost.

“We’re assessing what the losses are, mostly lemons with some avocados and row crops…lettuce, celery and strawberries,” Long said.

About 10,800 residents in the area were under evacuation orders, Sheriff Ayub told reporters Friday night. A few hours later county fire officials began lifting orders for residents of eight streets.

"I'm just worried about all the animals and the homes and all the ranches that are nearby on South Mountain," evacuating Santa Paula resident Anna Garcia told NBC Los Angeles.

Another fleeing Santa Paula resident, Devawn Escobar, said she was amazed how fast the flames gobbled up the South Mountain chaparral.

"It just started, just a small quarter and then within minutes it expanded really quickly, really quickly," Escobar said, gesturing to flames visible from miles away.

The Maria fire is just 25 miles northwest of the Easy fire, which ignited Wednesday and initially threatened the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The 1,860-acre blaze had been 80 percent contained by Friday morning, officials said.

Then the Getty fire, which started Monday, has torched 745 acres of West Los Angeles and was 66 percent contained, Los Angeles Fire Department officials said Friday. All mandatory evacuations were lifted at about 10 a.m. local time Friday.