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Deadly California Wildfire Grows; High Winds Forecast


Flames from a back fire rise behind a home in Santa Barbara, Calif. A new red flag warning was scheduled to go into effect Saturday in the fire area because of the predicted return of winds. The Thomas Fire erupted Dec. 4, 2017, a few miles from Thomas Aquinas College.

Calming winds Friday gave firefighters a chance to gain ground against a huge wildfire in coastal mountains northwest of Los Angeles, but the blaze continued to surge west, endangering thousands of homes, as forecasts called for a renewal of gusty winds.

The so-called Thomas Fire, the fourth-largest in California history, was 35 percent contained Friday night after sweeping across 400 square miles (about 1,036 square kilometers) of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties since it erupted Dec. 4.

It has burned more than 1,000 buildings, including more than 750 homes. Another 18,000 buildings are in jeopardy, including mansions in the wealthy enclave of Montecito.

Between Thursday night and Friday morning, the blaze claimed another 3,000 acres as it fed on brush and timber killed by California’s long drought or a week of hot, dry weather.

In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, fire burns canyons and ridges above Bella Vista Drive near Romero Canyon as the fight to contain a wildfire continues in Montecito, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017.
In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, fire burns canyons and ridges above Bella Vista Drive near Romero Canyon as the fight to contain a wildfire continues in Montecito, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017.

Santa Barbara has had only a tiny amount of rain since Oct. 1, the start of the new water year, and is more than 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) below normal to date.

Firefighters continued to carve firebreaks above the communities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito, and state fire officials said evacuations would be called as needed as flames advanced.

Eastern flank of fire

Another focus of firefighting was on the eastern flank in canyons where a state firefighter was killed Thursday near the agricultural town of Fillmore.

The death of Cory Iverson, 32, was announced by Chief Ken Pimlott of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection but he released no information about the circumstances, citing an ongoing investigation by an accident review team.

Iverson was an engineer with a strike team from the San Diego area and had been with Cal Fire since 2009. He is survived by his wife, who is pregnant, and a 2-year-old daughter, as well as his parents and other family.

Debris and rubble remain where the house of Ventura Country Sheriff Commander Dave Murray once stood in Ventura, California, Dec. 8, 2017
Debris and rubble remain where the house of Ventura Country Sheriff Commander Dave Murray once stood in Ventura, California, Dec. 8, 2017

Extreme fire danger

The National Weather Service forecast extreme fire danger or “red flag” conditions through at least Saturday evening, with winds gusting to 40 mph in the Santa Barbara County mountains where the fire is burning. Firefighters were facing first northerly “sundowner” winds through the night that could turn into northeasterly Santa Ana winds, driving the flames in another direction.

Everything about the fire was massive, from a footprint larger than that of many cities to the sheer scale of destruction that cremated entire neighborhoods or the legions attacking it: more than 8,000 firefighters from nearly a dozen states, aided by 32 helicopters and 78 bulldozers.

Firefighting costs were approaching $89 million.

A wildfire burns off of the hills next to CA-126 highway, just northwest of Fillmore, California, Dec. 7, 2017.
A wildfire burns off of the hills next to CA-126 highway, just northwest of Fillmore, California, Dec. 7, 2017.

Meanwhile, firefighters continued to deal with the loss of their own. All 17 of the firefighters on Cory Iverson’s five-engine strike team were pulled off the fire lines after his death.

On Thursday night, Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean called for a moment of silence during a meeting for Fillmore residents.

“As I was up in the canyon and I watched his fire brethren remove his flag-draped body from the canyon in the hills above where we sit right here, I couldn’t help but think about his pregnant wife and his young daughter who will never see their husband and father again,” Dean said.

It was the second death linked to the fire. The body of a 70-year-old woman was found in a crashed car on an evacuation route last week.

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