First fire-related death confirmed in Southern California

Posted at 8:40 AM, Dec 09, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-09 08:40:27-05

A woman whose body was found at a crash site along an evacuation route in Southern California became the first confirmed fire-related casualty in a series of raging wildfires that could gain strength this weekend.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday was due to visit Ventura County, home to the largest of the six wildfires, the Thomas Fire. He’ll survey damage, meet with affected residents, consult with government officials and emergency responders, and brief reporters, his office said.

His visit comes as strong Santa Ana winds this weekend could fuel the flames, the National Weather Service said. Wind gusts in the region will be 35 to 55 mph through Sunday, CNN meteorologist Rachel Aissen said.

The forecast could challenge firefighters, who by Friday had made progress against the Thomas Fire, officials said.

“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.

Together, the half-dozen fires have scorched nearly 160,000 acres this week, officials said.

The White House has approved California’s request “for direct federal assistance to support the response” to the emergency, Brown’s office said.

Latest developments

• Power outages: At least 9,400 customers in northern San Diego are without power because of the Lilac Fire, according to San Diego Gas & Electric. More than 4,300 customers are still without power due to the Thomas Fire along the north coast, the Creek Fire in Sylmar and the Rye Fire in Santa Clarita, according to Southern California Edison.

• Federal assistance: President Donald Trump declared an emergency in the state 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.

• Fatality confirmed: Virginia Pesola, 70, of Santa Paula, was found dead in a car that authorities believe was involved in a crash Wednesday during evacuations near the Thomas Fire. The cause of death was “blunt force injuries with terminal smoke inhalation and thermal injuries,” the Ventura County medical examiner office said.

• 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, officials said.

‘It’s not as important as my life’

The flames of the Creek Fire brought Bob Brix’s house to ashes, leaving him without a place to call home and destroying a cherished family heirloom. He could see the remains of an old piano that his grandfather — a composer — used to play.

“It’s not as important as my life. It’s the sentimental things I’m not going to be able to replace,” he told CNN affiliate KTLA.

Brix was among the thousands of residents that were allowed back into their neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Riverside counties on Friday. The losses were minimal for some residents, but many lost everything.

Before the mandatory evacuations were lifted, Kathy Sanborn slept in her car waiting to hear about the damage to her home in Sylmar.

“I don’t have clothes. I don’t have things that I need,” she told KTLA. “I have things that I probably wouldn’t have left in the house if I hadn’t been so panicked.”

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% containedIt’s also spread into Santa Barbara County. The blaze ranks as the 19th most destructive firein 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 15,619 acres and is 70% contained.

Rye Fire: It broke out Tuesday in Los Angeles County and has burned 6,049 acres. Firefighters are making progress, with 50% of the blaze contained.

Lilac Fire: This fast-moving fire has consumed 4,100 acres since it erupted 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 15% 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 90% contained.