VENTURA, Calif. — Firefighters continued to battle blazes across a large swath of Southern California on Saturday, and state officials warned that continued high winds into Sunday could create erratic fire conditions, leaving residents with little chance of a reprieve from the flames and smoke that have lasted nearly a week.
The Thomas Fire here, in a coastal region northwest of Los Angeles, remained the largest active wildfire in the state, having burned through nearly 150,000 acres and taking with it more than 500 buildings and at least one life. Though officials began lifting evacuation orders in Ventura — to the south of the fire — residents in Carpinteria and Santa Barbara, enclaves along Highway 101 further northwest, were still under threat as the fire’s northern vanguard continued to move.
Officials said that expected winds, which could strike up at a moment’s notice and had been pushing the fires toward populated areas, remained a concern. They also lamented the brutal fire season, which has sent massive fires into urban areas up and down the state.
“This is kind of the new normal,” Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said at a news conference Saturday in Ventura County. “We’re facing a new reality in this state, where fires threaten people’s lives, their property, their neighborhoods and, of course, billions and billions of dollars.”
Brown said climate change would mean residents should expect similarly extreme fire activity for decades.
“I know that’s maybe a little remote, but it’s real, and we’re experiencing what it’s going to look like on a very regular basis,” he said.
Authorities said the Thomas Fire had moved quickly — 14 miles in its first night last week — and is just 15 percent contained. It has destroyed 537 structures and outbuildings and has damaged another 118, including those of numerous low-income families who have few options for housing. Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, speaking during a town hall that drew hundreds of people Saturday, said the board is planning to unveil a rental assistance plan to help those in need.
“There are a number of low-income people who have been burned out,” Bennett said. “Many of us are going to have to open up our homes.”
There are 4,000 firefighters trying to contain the blaze, and authorities said the firefighting costs have reached nearly $17.5 million.
Though there were a few positive signs in Los Angeles County to the south — officials reported Saturday that the Creek Fire and Skirball Fire were 80 percent and 50 percent contained, respectively — red flag warnings of heightened fire risk remain in place through Sunday, when winds could peak at around 50 mph. That could combine with extremely low humidity to create severe fire conditions, as the fire’s fuel — abundant vegetation and trees — remain dry.
In San Diego County, firefighters continued to battle the Lilac Fire, which started Thursday morning and spread quickly. Residents who fled described rapidly moving flames.
“Oh my God, the heat, the heat,” said Clifford Sise, a horse trainer who had to evacuate while trying to get his horses out of San Luis Rey Downs, a racehorse facility in San Diego County where it is believed dozens of horses died in the fire. “One of my fillies wouldn’t leave, she burned to death in like one minute. I had ’em all out, and then when I went back after, I must’ve had two little babies run back in their stalls and they died.”
The human death toll from the fires so far has been low, with authorities reporting one confirmed fire-related death: Medical examiners in Ventura identified a body found Wednesday as Virginia Pesola, 70, of Santa Paula. Pesola died of “blunt force injuries with terminal smoke inhalation and thermal injuries” in a traffic incident during “active fire evacuation,” according to the county medical examiner.
The streets of downtown Carpinteria were empty on Saturday as a smoke-filled haze continued to hang over the city. Yet Esau’s Cafe, which sits in the heart of downtown on Linden Avenue, remained open — and busy at that — while most businesses are still closed.
“We kept it open and served those that needed help, the firemen and those that lost their homes,” said Taylor Stanley, 30, the manager at Esau’s. “We gave out free meals to them. We have good air circulation in here so we stayed open just so people could get out from under the smoke.”
For residents of Carpinteria, the smoke presents nearly as much of a risk as the fire; authorities have reported dangerous air quality in the area that they described as “off the charts.”
“I have five stents in my chest,” said Christina Garcia, 55. “I had three heart attacks last year. I’m just trying to make sure this doesn’t get into my filtration.”
On Saturday, face masks were in high demand throughout Ventura County. An employee at Home Depot in Oxnard said the store had ordered them in bulk, and had 12 pallets of masks on hand — far more than the usual two — and that they were selling briskly. An employee at Lowe’s Home Improvement in Ventura said they had sold out of face masks on Saturday morning.
Across the region, people who fled recounted fire and smoke that seemed to come from everywhere.
Ventura residents Christie and Mark Evans, both 35, also were forced to evacuate on short notice. The couple had received the keys to their newly purchased home on Colina Vista Street on Dec. 1, and started the process of moving in last weekend.
Christie Evans — who is 8½ months pregnant with her second child — spent Monday readying their new home, locking up around 6:30 p.m. before returning to her recently sold house.
It was the last she was would see of the new home.
“Around 8, my brother called and said there was a fire … that was moving toward Ventura,” she said.
Mark Evans decided to head to the new house to retrieve the family pet, a 35-year-old rescue tortoise named Sheldon, who was hibernating in the garage. Once inside, he hurriedly grabbed a wedding album, some important paperwork and the tortoise.
On Tuesday, while at her parents’ house with her 17-month-old son, Christie Evans was watching the news with her mom and sister. What she saw stunned her.
“There was my driveway — and there was no house,” she said.
Like most of the houses on the block, it was a total loss. They have returned once, only to find the street smoldering with small fires caused by gas leaks.
“It didn’t seem like anything that would happen in real life,” she said. “The Christmas presents are all gone, the Christmas decorations are all gone, all of that stuff. Luckily my son is young enough where he doesn’t really understand Christmas, but we still want him to have some good memories of it.”
Ufberg reported from Carpinteria, Calif., and Wang reported from Washington. Noah Smith in Ventura, Calif., and Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this report.