Firefighter killed battling Thomas fire as powerful winds pose new threat

A firefighter died Thursday while battling the Thomas fire as authorities braced for new powerful winds that could pose threats to homes in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Officials said a combination of Santa Ana and sundowner winds will hit the area from Thursday through Sunday, bringing new dangers to a fire that now ranks as the fourth-largest in the state’s modern history.

As they prepare for the new battle, firefighters were also grappling with loss.

“I am very saddened to report that a firefighter fatality has occurred on the Thomas Incident,” Chief Ken Pimlott, the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in a statement. “Please join me in keeping our fallen firefighter and his loved ones in your prayers and all the responders on the front lines in your thoughts as they continue to work under extremely challenging conditions.”

Pimlott identified the firefighter as fire apparatus engineer Cory Iverson, 32.

Iverson was assigned to the fire as a part of a strike team from Cal Fire’s San Diego unit. He started with Cal Fire in 2009. He is survived by his wife, Ashley, and their 2-year-old daughter Evie. The family is expecting a second daughter this spring.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Cory's family and all of his friends and co-workers throughout the department and the fire service,” he said.

He said an accident review team would investigate the circumstances of Iverson’s death.

“While we continue to process this tragic loss, we must keep our focus on the fire. The fire fight in front of us continues to go on,” he said. “The communities we are protecting are depending on us, and we will not fail.”

At 4 p.m., the body of the firefighter was loaded into a hearse and taken away, with firefighters lining the road in tribute.

Just hours before Iverson’s death, Pimlott appeared at a morning briefing where he emphasized safety over complacency. It’s during what seems like the least dangerous times — while mopping up hot spots, cutting burned trees or striding though charred rubble — that most injuries occur, he said.

While strategy was discussed as usual, there was an emphasis on staying vigilant as the fire’s eastern flank winds down. A retiring corrections officer warned firefighters not to become complacent during this incident, and said that should they find themselves relaxing, they should think about their colleagues who have been injured or lost their lives in seemingly low-risk situations.

Despite a couple of days of reduced winds and feverish efforts by firefighters to establish new containment lines, the 249,500-acre Thomas fire has surpassed the size of the Zaca fire, which scorched Santa Barbara County in 2007, according to Dave Zaniboni, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Firefighters hope the 240,207-acre Zaca fire burn scar, as well as the younger vegetation it contains, will help them fight the Thomas fire’s growth along its western edge.

Firefighters have taken advantage of a two-day lull in winds to increase fire containment to 35%. Those efforts could be tested soon, however, as forecasters predict a new blast of Santa Ana winds Thursday, and sundowner winds over Santa Barbara County on Friday.

In Thursday’s incident report, fire officials said they didn’t expect to reach full containment of the blaze until Jan. 7 — more than three weeks from now.

The state of California began keeping records of wildfire acreage in 1932. While other large fires raged on the West Coast prior to that year, those records are less reliable, according to Cal Fire.

At the morning briefing Thursday, fire commanders said another day of extremely low humidity and moderate winds would greet firefighters as they continued to build containment lines above Carpinteria, Montecito and Santa Barbara.

The mountains north of the coast produce notoriously unpredictable and dangerous conditions for firefighters, said fire behavior analyst Tim Chavez. In the Matilija wilderness, which straddles the border between the two counties, observers saw 50-foot flames backing down a hillside overnight, he said. It’s unusual to see flames that tall working their way down a mountain, officials said.

“This thing is 60 miles long and 40 miles wide,” Chavez said of the blaze. “There’s a lot of fire out there.”

Gusty Santa Ana winds are expected for Los Angeles and Ventura counties Thursday, said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service. In the mountains, gusts of 55 mph are possible.

In the valleys, 15 to 25 mph gusts are predicted, with some gusts of up to 40 mph, Seto said. Over the past few days, a break in the weather has allowed firefighters to increase containment.

“That’s the thing, it’s just going to do the opposite now. The humidities are still down in the single digits,” Seto said. “These winds, especially in the mountain areas, are really going to start blowing the fire around again. What it does is carry the embers further down and can create more fires.”

Winds will be north to northeast, and usually the Ventura side is more affected than the Santa Barbara side, Seto said.

“But it’s still going to have an effect up in the mountain areas of Santa Barbara,” he added. Winds up there will be up to 25 mph and a little gusty, “so there’s still going to be a big concern up in that area,” he said.

Throughout mountain areas on Thursday there’s a greater risk for large fire plumes, which can cause erratic fire behavior.

“It carries the heat up, and it looks like a thunderstorm cloud,” Seto said. “From there, the fire could spread out. Sometimes they collapse, and it’s a strong down-rush of winds and it spreads the fire.”

Sundowner winds are expected Friday into Saturday in the Santa Barbara area. On Sunday, winds are expected to return to offshore conditions, Seto said.

The fire has destroyed more than 900 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties since it began Dec. 4 near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula. In its first day, the fire spread southwest, toward Ventura, and northwest, eventually hugging Ojai before pushing to the Central Coast.

joseph.serna@latimes.com | Twitter @JosephSerna

brittny.mejia@latimes.com | Twitter: @Brittny_Mejia

javier.panzar@latimes.com | Twitter: @jpanzar

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UPDATES:

7:41 p.m.: Updated with wind forecast and updated numbers.

4:55 p.m.: This article was updated with the name of the firefighter.

4:10 p.m.: This article was updated with more details from the Cal Fire chief.

1:00 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the death of the firefighter.

12:45 p.m.: This article was updated with the death of a firefighter.

10:04 a.m.: This article was updated with details on Cal Fire wildfire records.

9:55 a.m.: This article was updated with details on homes destroyed and an expected containment date.

This article was originally published at 8:50 a.m.

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