Much of Los Angeles and Ventura counties were under “red flag warnings” of increased fire risk through Sunday evening as the winds that fanned the flames were expected to strengthen. Any new blaze could see a “very rapid spread of wildfire … and extreme fire behavior that could lead to a threat to life and property,” the National Weather Service warned.
Officials lamented a brutal fire season that has ravaged the state this year, tearing mercilessly through the northern and southern parts of California alike.
“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 means residents should expect such 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.
New evacuations orders were issued Sunday as the Thomas Fire — the state’s biggest active blaze, roaring across 155,000 acres in coastal Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles — was “expected to spread” toward neighboring Santa Barbara County, authorities warned in an alert Sunday morning.
Although officials had lifted evacuation orders in Ventura, south of the fire, residents of enclaves in Santa Barbara were urged to leave. People in parts of the county, including the city of Carpinteria, “need to be prepared to leave in a moment’s notice,” the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office warned, urging residents to gather relatives, pets and anything irreplaceable.
The Thomas Fire has moved quickly since erupting Monday in Ventura County, officials said, and has destroyed more than 500 structures and threatened 15,000. By Sunday morning, it was just 15 percent contained.
Medical examiners in Ventura reported the only fire-related death known so far, identifying a body found Wednesday as that of Virginia Pesola, 70, of Santa Paula. Pesola died of “blunt-force injuries with terminal smoke inhalation and thermal injuries,” officials said.
The destroyed buildings included housing for low-income families who have few other options. Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, speaking during a town hall that drew hundreds of people Saturday, said his 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.
Some positive signs were reported in Los Angeles County to the south. Officials said Saturday that the Creek and Skirball fires were 80 percent and 50 percent contained. But winds could peak Sunday at about 50 mph, and that could combine with extremely low humidity to create severe fire conditions helped along by the blaze’s fuel — dry vegetation and trees.
In San Diego County, firefighters continued to battle the Lilac Fire, which started Thursday morning and spread quickly to more than 4,000 acres. It had been 50 percent contained by Saturday night.
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 that dozens of horses died in the blaze. “One of my fillies wouldn’t leave. She burned to death in, like, one minute. I had them 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 streets of downtown Carpinteria were empty 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, describing it 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 that 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 the store had sold out of face masks Saturday morning.
Ventura residents Christie and Mark Evans, both 35, 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 they started the process of moving in last weekend.
Christie Evans — who is 8½ months pregnant with her second child — spent Monday readying the new home, locking up around 6:30 p.m. before returning to her recently sold house.
Mark Evans decided to head to the 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 watched the news with her mom and sister. What she saw stunned her.
“There was my driveway — and there was no house,” she said.
Ufberg reported from Carpinteria, and Berman reported from Washington. Noah Smith in Ventura and Angela Fritz and Amy B Wang in Washington contributed to this report.