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First fatality confirmed from Southern California wildfires

A wind-fanned fire growing at a “dangerous” rate in North County has charred 4,100 acres, destroyed dozens of structures and is threatening 5,000 more, fire officials said Thursday.

The first fire-related fatality from a series of wildfires that have covered Southern California in smoke and ash was confirmed Friday, authorities said.

Virginia Pesola, 70, of Santa Paula, was found dead in a car that had been involved in a crash along an evacuation route in a burn area of the Thomas fire in Ventura County on Wednesday night. According to the county medical examiner, Pesola’s cause of death was blunt force trauma with terminal smoke inhalation and thermal injuries.

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“The death involved a traffic incident during active fire evacuation,” the medical examiner wrote in a news release. She had been reporting missing after the evacuation.

Pesola was a victim of the Thomas fire, a 143,000-acre monster blaze that started about 6:30 p.m. Monday and raced across Ventura County mountains and foothills as hurricane-force wind gusts steered the flames.

Bill Murphy, a public information officer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said firefighters had a successful day fighting flames on the southern edge toward the coast as well parts of Ojai thanks to favorable wind patterns, weakened Santa Ana winds and improved fire lines established by crews.

By Friday evening, the Thomas fire was at 10% containment. As a result, Murphy said evacuations for most of the city of Ventura and Santa Paula were lifted. Firefighters continued to encounter difficulty on the east side of the blaze above Fillmore.

Firefighters used helicopters to drop water in that portion to try to contain the fire.

The Thomas fire is one of six blazes in Los Angeles, San Diego and Ventura counties destroyed more than 500 structures, sent 212,000 people fleeing and left thousands without power.

In northern San Diego County, the Lilac fire continued to burn Friday morning, holding at 4,100 acres from the night before with no containment. More than 1,000 firefighters were battling the blaze, which roared through Bonsall and into Oceanside late Thursday.

At least three people were injured and 25 horses were killed at a thoroughbred training center. At least 85 structures have been destroyed, including a number of mobile homes, authorities said Friday.

President Trump approved a California disaster declaration Friday morning. He ordered federal aid to the area and put the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in charge of disaster relief efforts.

The National Weather Service extended a red-flag fire warning for much of the region to Sunday.

“Be prepared because as we remember the Cedar fire in 2003, a fire that starts in the back country … can go anywhere at any time, particularly when those winds shift,” San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said Friday morning. “We’re not out of the woods yet. We need to stay vigilant and be prepared.”

Of all the fires in Southern California, the Thomas fire is still the largest, spanning from Santa Paula to the coast. It was 10% contained as of Friday morning, authorities said.

The blaze approached Santa Barbara County triggering that county’s emergency operations center to activate.

Smoke from the Thomas fire reduced visibility at times from a mile to less than half a mile in Ventura on Friday morning.

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The winds Thursday night were “down into the teens and 20s as opposed to previous nights we had winds in the 30 and 40 mph” range, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Scott Dettorre.

Throughout Ventura County, more than 400 structures have been destroyed, most in the city of Ventura, authorities said.

At a morning briefing Friday, crews battling the Thomas fire were reminded to be sensitive of residents who were returning to destroyed homes.

“Treat them like you would treat your community,” they were told.

Firefighters also were warned of the dangers of changing wind patterns and to be extra cautious of their surroundings. Erratic wind patterns Friday could change the direction of flames, placing fire crews at higher risk of getting caught without an escape route.

“The Santa Ana winds are predicted to die down by the afternoon, and with that, the breeze from the ocean will pick up,” said Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Scott Quirarte. “Firefighters will need to pay attention to the winds and the type of terrain they’re on.”

The Thomas fire is mostly burning at either end of the perimeter, Dettorre said. Northeast Santa Ana winds continued pushing flames west toward the La Conchita area, while topography is offering fuel to the fire on the eastern end, he said. The fire already has encroached into the Los Padres National Forest above Ojai and could do the same on the eastern end near Fillmore, he added.

In downtown Ojai, which is under a voluntary evacuation, most restaurants, boutiques and wine-tasting rooms have been closed for three days.

John Wilson, 80, was one of 118 people taking refuge in the shelter at Ojai’s Nordhoff High School. Like many others, he was saddled with unanswered questions about the fate of his home, 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.”

Santa Barbara County Fire Department officials said the Thomas fire had yet to reach their county Friday morning, but said residents should remain prepared.

The air quality in Carpinteria is considered “hazardous,” said Polly Baldwin, medical director at the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department. She urged residents to wear face masks when outside.

At the Casitas Shopping Center in Carpinteria, just above the Santa Barbara County line, more than 100 people stood in a line that stretched from Albertsons to a corner doughnut shop, and waited to collect masks. Organizers said they have 3,000 masks they plan to hand out, for both adults and children.

By midnight Thursday, San Diego County officials confirmed that they had called more than 100,000 phone numbers to issue evacuation orders or warnings through AlertSanDiego, a regional notification system.

At least 20,000 in San Diego County were without power as of 10 a.m. Friday morning, said Jacob, the county supervisor.

As of about 12:30 a.m. Friday, approximately 578 people had checked into evacuations centers, a county spokeswoman said.

At the Rancho Monserate Country Club in Fallbrook, a swath of upscale mobile homes bordering a golf course already had been reduced to ash and twisted metal.

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

The 15,323-acre Creek fire near Sylmar was 40% contained as of Friday morning, and no more structures were threatened, authorities said.

At least 63 homes and other structures have been destroyed and an additional 45 damaged, though officials expect that number to increase as damage assessment crews continue to survey the area, said L.A. City Fire Capt. Branden Silverman.

As of 4 p.m. Thursday, residents were allowed back into their neighborhoods, except Limekiln Canyon, Silverman said.

The Skirball fire in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air was 30% contained and at 475 acres as of Friday morning. Six houses have been destroyed and a dozen damaged in the fire, authorities said. Some residents have been allowed back into their homes.

On Thursday night and Friday morning, “they had flare-ups here and there … but they were able to quickly extinguish them and knock those down,” said Los Angeles City Fire Capt. Cody Weireter.

As of Friday morning, the Liberty fire in Murrieta was at 300 acres and 60% contained. One structure and seven outbuildings were destroyed, authorities said.

On Friday morning, Southern California Edison said that more than 11,000 of its customers were without power because of fires throughout the region.

The dry, gusty winds that have fanned a half-dozen wildfires in Southern California will continue through next week, the National Weather Service said.

A red flag warning — a combination of extremely low relative humidity and wind speeds that indicate a serious threat if a fire were to occur — are in effect through 8 p.m. Sunday, said meteorologist Tom Fisher.

“Monday and Tuesday, things should be kind of dull, fortunately,” Fisher said. The wind speeds expected Friday are a far cry from the hurricane-force gusts that drove a wall of fire into Ventura on Monday evening and downslope toward hundreds of thousands of residents in Los Angeles County the following morning.

According to forecasters, 25 to 35 mph winds in Ventura County around the Thomas fire will continue to push the fire south and southwest, with occasional 45 mph gusts.

Winds are forecast to be even calmer inland, where they will move at 15 to 25 mph, with 35 mph gusts in the San Gabriel Valley, Fisher said.

Farther south in Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties, winds on Friday had slowed tremendously from Monday and Tuesday, when gusts clocked in at more than 80 mph. Winds were down to between 30 and 50 mph for cities between Riverside and Palomar.

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