The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

California firefighter killed during response to historic Thomas Fire as dangerous conditions persist

California firefighters mourned the death of one of their own on Friday, Dec. 15. (Video: Reuters)

Authorities in California said Thursday that a firefighter died during the response to the Thomas Fire, a massive blaze that has grown to become the fourth-biggest in the state’s history and continues to expand.

“I am very saddened to report that a firefighter fatality has occurred on the Thomas Incident,” Ken Pimlott, the director of Cal Fire, said in a statement.

Authorities identified the fallen firefighter as Cory Iverson, a 32-year-old who had been with Cal Fire for 8 years. Iverson’s wife, Ashley, is pregnant, and they have a two-year-old daughter, according to the governor’s office.

Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said Iverson was an engineer with Cal Fire’s San Diego unit and would have been in charge of the fire engine and the engine crew, McLean said.

Firefighters battling historic California blaze report progress, but threat of ‘extreme fire behavior’ remains

Iverson died Thursday morning, McLean said, though further details were not immediately available.

“We are continuing to get further verified facts and make sure that all the family has been notified as well,” McLean said in a telephone interview before Iverson’s name was publicly released.

“His bravery and years of committed service to the people of California will never be forgotten,” Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said in a statement.

A procession of fire trucks and police cars transported the body of a Cal Fire engineer who died on Dec. 14 while battling the Thomas fire. (Video: Lacitychiefs)

Iverson’s death on Thursday came as the Thomas Fire burned northwest of Los Angeles for an 11th day. The fire roaring through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties had burned across nearly 380 square miles by Thursday, making it the fourth-largest California wildfire on record. Officials said it had been 30 percent contained.

“Current weather patterns and rugged terrain make firefighting efforts very difficult,” Ventura County officials said in an alert posted Thursday night.

The Thomas Fire has been by far the largest of the recent blazes ravaging parts of Southern California, fires that have destroyed more than 1,000 buildings — most of them single-family homes — and are threatening thousands of others.

While these fires have forced scores from their homes and burned wide swaths of the region, the firefighter’s death Thursday is just the second fatality officials have blamed on these blazes.

Last week, authorities said a 70-year-old woman was killed by “blunt force injuries with terminal smoke inhalation and thermal injuries” during the Thomas Fire evacuation.

Why are California’s wildfires so historic? For starters, a diablo is at work.

As homes have been burned to the ground and neighborhoods clouded with ash, officials warn that the danger had not yet passed. Red-flag warnings of heightened fire risk remained in effect through Friday morning, and it is likely they will be extended or reissued.

The region faces challenging conditions because gusting wind could combine with low humidity to lead to still-dangerous fire behavior, while a lack of rain could fuel the fires’ growth.

Some of the other fires that erupted and endangered people in the region have been contained, officials said.

The Lilac Fire in San Diego County, which grew quickly last week to more than 4,100 acres, was 97 percent contained on Thursday, while the Rye Fire in Los Angeles County, which had expanded to 6,000 acres, was 100 percent contained a day earlier.

The causes of some of these fires remain under investigation. Authorities this week said the relatively small Skirball Fire, which destroyed a half-dozen homes in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles last week, was sparked by a cooking fire at a homeless encampment. The causes of other blazes are still being explored.

The Thomas fire spread through Carpinteria, Cailf., on Dec. 11 and prompted new evacuations. (Video: VCAirUnit/Twitter)

The Thomas Fire, meanwhile, has only grown, and officials said it burned across hundreds of homes and commercial buildings. Some areas remained evacuated, and officials warned of “hazardous conditions” in those places. In an incident update Thursday, officials described fighting the fire along its western and southeastern portions.

Authorities said they expected the fire to be contained by Jan. 7, a little more than a month after it first erupted on Dec. 4.

This story, first published on Dec. 14, has been updated with new information released by California authorities.

Further reading:

A dire forecast for Southern California wildfires: ‘No significant relief in sight’

Fire and fear stretch across Southern California as wildfires rage from Ventura to San Diego

California burned last year with fires fueled by historic drought