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Destructive toll of Southern California fire siege comes into focus

Destructive toll of Southern California fire siege comes into focus
A view of the Rancho Monserate Country Club community, where many homes were burned to the ground when the Lilac fire swept through Bonsall, in northern San Diego County. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The powerful Santa Ana winds that fueled a five-day fire siege across Southern California this week began to ease Friday, but the destructive toll of the blazes continued to grow and firefighters will remain on high alert through the weekend.

The fires, which stretched from Ojai to Oceanside, destroyed more than 500 structures and forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. The smoke created air quality problems that officials said reached unprecedented levels in some areas.

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As hot, dry Santa Anas faded, officials warned that breezes from the ocean could pick up, changing the direction of the flames, placing fire crews at higher risk of getting caught without an escape route.

A red flag warning — a combination of extremely low relative humidity and wind speeds that indicates a serious threat if a fire were to occur — is in effect through Sunday evening, said Tom Fisher, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

President Trump on Friday approved a California emergency declaration, ordering federal aid to the area and putting the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in charge of relief efforts.

In northern San Diego County, the Lilac fire — which ignited Thursday off Interstate 15 — forced large swaths of Bonsall and Oceanside to evacuate. More than 1,000 firefighters were battling the blaze, which held at 4,100 acres from the night before with 15% containment.

The Lilac fire destroyed at least 105 structures, including a number of mobile homes, authorities said Friday. Three people were injured, and 25 horses were killed at a thoroughbred training center.

"When a tornado hits the Midwest, there's no stopping it. When a hurricane hits the East Coast, there's no stopping it. When the Santa Ana winds come in, there's no stopping them," said Kendal Bortisser, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in San Diego.

In Los Angeles County, firefighters on Thursday night took advantage of the calmest winds they had seen in days.

The 15,619-acre Creek fire near Sylmar was 70% contained as of Friday night. At least 56 residences and 49 other structures were destroyed and an additional 45 residences and 25 other structures damaged.

The 475-acre Skirball fire in Bel-Air was 50% contained. Six houses were destroyed.

The Thomas fire in Ventura County was still the largest, spanning 143,000 acres from Santa Paula to the coast, with significant growth north of Ojai. It was 10% contained as of Friday night and had destroyed 476 structures.

More than 87,000 people had been evacuated because of the Thomas fire alone.

On Friday, the Ventura County medical examiner's office identified a body found at the site of a car accident on Wheeler Canyon Road on Wednesday night as 70-year-old Virginia Pesola of Santa Paula, the only death in the Thomas fire to date.

She died of blunt-force injuries with terminal smoke inhalation and thermal injuries, officials said. The death is being investigated by the California Highway Patrol and the Major Crimes Unit of the Ventura County Sheriff's Office.

Besides the flames, there was another major issue for residents to contend with: terrible air quality.

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Pollution in Ojai was off the charts, said Phil Moyer, an air quality specialist with the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District.

"It's the highest reading we've seen. It's crazy numbers," Moyer said.

The air quality index, a measurement of pollution in the air, is considered unhealthy at a rating of 151 or higher. The worst category is "hazardous" and covers ratings between 301 and 500, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Pollution levels in Ojai have been averaging over 500, with smoke from the Thomas fire trapped by the mountains that encircle the mountain town, Moyer said.

"Especially now that the Santa Anas have died down, there's nothing to push the smoke out of the way, so it just kind of sits there," he said.

At the Casitas Shopping Center in Carpinteria, just above the Santa Barbara County line, more than 100 people stood in a queue to pick up masks as smoke and ash filled the air.

Among them was Gloria Rivera, who came to grab masks for herself, her husband, her two grandchildren — and her chihuahua, Mamba.

"I'm gonna try and put it on him," she said.

Rivera said she lives in an area where voluntary evacuations have been issued. She left home Wednesday as a precaution but returned Thursday to check on her house and decided to stay there.

Hospitals across Southern California reported high numbers of patients showing up in emergency rooms with breathing problems. Health officials advise that people limit their outdoor activity, close windows, use air conditioning that recirculates inside air and wear N95 masks outside, which can protect from harmful particles.

On Friday afternoon, Jacklyn Mann, 29, sifted through the charred metal and debris where her house once stood, along with her brother Ben and her father, Roger.

They were some of the first residents on their block in Ventura, near Via Arroyo and Colina Vista, to return. They came back with one goal in mind: to salvage all the household items with sentimental value that they could.

"I found another one!" Jacklyn shouted to her dad.

In her hand was a dusty ceramic pinch pot that her other brother, Dixon Mann, made years ago in elementary school.

"Oh, cool! Sweet," her father responded.

Lined on the side of their property were small items that the family had dug up that day, including Ben's childhood swimming medals.

The family decided to spend their Friday digging after finding a Christmas ornament that belonged to Jacklyn. It had been hanging on the tree they had just decorated Monday.

At a Red Cross shelter at Nordhoff High School in Ojai, Ken Williams leaned back in a folding chair and flipped on the switch of an amateur radio console.

He'd spent each morning listening to the chatter on emergency response channels to get a sense of the fire's behavior.

But something remarkable happened when Williams turned on the radio at daybreak Friday: Silence.

"Man, that's a good thing," said Williams, 71, who lives in an Ojai mobile home. "When the chatter calms down, it means things are definitely getting better."

Sitting near Williams was John Wilson, 80, one of 118 people taking refuge at the school. Like many others, he was saddled with unanswered questions about the fate of his home — in his case just a mile west of the shelter.

"I sure am ready to go home," said Wilson, who has lived in Ojai more than three decades.

"Having no idea what's going to happen next is a brand new experience for me."

Times staff writers Ruben Vives, Sonali Kohli and Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

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