California fires: Crews near Ventura have ‘very successful day’

Updated 12:48 AM EST, Sat December 9, 2017
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Story highlights

NEW: First fire-related death reported in Ventura County

NEW: Some evacuation orders are rescinded

(CNN) —  

The thousands of men and women fighting Southern California’s largest wildfire made progress Friday thanks to weather that allowed more aircraft to help in the battle.

“(It was a) very successful day on the fire line,” said Mark Brown, an operations section chief for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Still, the Thomas Fire grew on a day when it switched from being a wind-driven blaze to a fuel-driven fire.

The fire found plenty of “very heavy, old fuels,” Tim Chavez of Cal Fire said. The fire increased to 143,000 acres, most of the advance coming on the north side of the blaze, where flames ravaged mountainsides in the Los Padres National Forest.

But in other areas, firefights stymied the flames and mandatory evacuation orders for Ventura, Santa Paula and some unincorporated areas were lifted.

The Lilac Fire has consumed more than 4,000 acres after erupting Thursday in San Diego County.
The Lilac Fire has consumed more than 4,000 acres after erupting Thursday in San Diego County.
PHOTO: Total Traffic &; Weather Network

Fire officials were still being cautious on this fifth day, when winds died down and more airplanes joined in dropping water on the blaze.

“With this break in the weather, we’ve made good progress, but that progress is limited to those areas that are safe to fly in,” said Todd Derum, the incident commander for Cal Fire.

Brown said that if the winds grow stronger, the flames could take off again because of the sheer volume of the fire, which is only 10% contained.

The Thomas Fire and five other blazes have scorched nearly 160,000 acres this week, officials said.

Latest developments

• First death confirmed: Authorities identified the remains of 70-year-old Virginia Pesola from Santa Paula, California, on Friday. Pesola was involved in a car crash as residents evacuated areas threatened by the Thomas Fire in Ventura County. The cause of death was “blunt force injuries with terminal smoke inhalation and thermal injuries,” the Ventura County medical examiner office said.

• Federal assistance: President Donald Trump declared an emergency in the state due to the wildfires and ordered the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

• New fire: The Lilac Fire in San Diego County started Thursday and grew to 4,100 acres in a few hours, leading to new evacuation orders. Evacuation centers have been set up in affected areas as the fire moves west toward Oceanside and Camp Pendleton.

• More injuries: The Lilac Fire has left three people with burn injuries and two firefighters hurt. One firefighter suffered smoke inhalation, while the second one had a dislocated shoulder. The latter popped it back into place and continued working, Schuler said.

Out of power: At least 20,000 customers in northern San Diego are without power because of the Lilac Fire, according to San Diego Gas & Electric.

School closings: Officials have shut down schools spanning at least 16 districts.

State declarations: Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency proclamation for Santa Barbara and San Diego counties. The declarations help free state resources such as the National Guard to support response efforts. He’s also requested federal assistance to supplement state and local emergency response.

Fast winds: Dry air and strong winds are forecast for the region through Sunday, which may fuel the fires, according to CNN meteorologist Rachel Aissen. Wind gusts in the region will be 35 to 55 mph through Sunday, which can fan the fire, Aissen said.

Some residents try to go home

The fires have forced 190,000 people out of their homes, some with nothing but their pets and a few mementos. Some tried to go home Friday.

Some residents of the Sylmar neighborhood, whose lives were uprooted by the Creek Fire, tried to return to their neighborhood Friday morning but were met by police. Fire crews were still doing damage assessment and putting out spot fires, CNN affiliate KCAL/KCBS reported.

People waited for hours, hoping to get back into one neighborhood.

“I’m mad. I just want to get home,” one woman said with a frustrated laugh. “I’m tired of staying in a hotel.”

She was hoping hers was not one of the more than 30 homes destroyed by the Creek Fire.

Animals in danger

The Ojai Raptor Center, a wildlife rehabilitation facility north of Ventura that specializes in birds of prey, released 14 birds shortly before the mandatory evacuation order came with the approach of the Thomas Fire this week, director Kimberly Stroud told CNN.

“We just turned them loose,” she said. “Their best possibility of survival is to be released and fly away.”

As the fire raged, Spooky the barred owl, Sasquatch the red-tailed hawk, Handsome the turkey vulture and about 20 other “education” animals were placed in small crates to await the evacuation order, Stroud said. The “education” and “ambassador” birds are unable to fly because of injuries. They’re used instead for educational purposes such as school visits.

Kimberly Stroud, head of the Ojai Raptor Center, holds Wonder the turkey vulture after the evacuation.
Kimberly Stroud, head of the Ojai Raptor Center, holds Wonder the turkey vulture after the evacuation.
PHOTO: Sara Weisfeldt, CNN

“It’s better for them to stay where they’re at and comfortable, versus move them around a lot,” she said. “They get stressed out easy.”

But burning embers, drifting ash and heavy smoke endangered the birds, which have sensitive respiratory systems, Stroud said.

After evacuating from Ojai this week, the 24 eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and other birds in crates found a temporary home in the dining room and garage of a volunteer near the beach in Ventura County. Stroud said her sister, two Great Danes and three cats also took up residence there.

Stroud said her phone has been ringing nonstop with “thoughts and prayers” and donations for the animals.

“We’ve already had $3,000 in donations come in from people who care and want to help us,” she said. “That’s going to be our saving grace, because when we get back to the center, it’s going to be a massive cleanup.”

During the Creek Fire in Los Angeles County, 29 horses were killed and those that were rescued sustained severe burns and were treated for smoke inhalation, dehydration and stress, according to the Los Angeles Department of Animal Care and Control.

Authorities said hundreds of pets, donkeys and even llamas have filled college facilities, county fairgrounds and sports facilities that were turned into temporary shelters.

7 images that show why the Southern California wildfires are so dangerous

The fires

The six blazes vary in size.

Thomas Fire: The largest of the fires has scorched 143,000 acres after starting Monday in Ventura County. It’s 10% contained. It’s also spread into Santa Barbara County. The blaze ranks as the 19th most destructive fire in the state’s records. It’s the biggest in Los Angeles since the Bel-Air fire in 1961 torched the homes of the rich and famous.

Creek Fire: The second-largest blaze ignited a day later in neighboring Los Angeles County. It has burned 15,323 acres and is 20% contained.

Rye Fire: It broke out Tuesday in Los Angeles County and has burned 6,000 acres. Firefighters are making progress, with 35% of the blaze contained.

Lilac Fire: This fast-moving fire consumed 4,100 acres in a few hours after erupting Thursday in San Diego County. It exploded from half an acre to 500 acres in 20 minutes, according to San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn. It’s 0% contained.

Skirball Fire: It started Wednesday as a brush fire in Los Angeles County and is now 30% contained.

Liberty Fire: The blaze in Riverside County has burned 300 acres since it ignited Thursday. It’s 5% contained.

CNN’s Paul Vercammen reported from Carpinteria, and Faith Karimi and Steve Almasy reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Nicole Chavez and Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.