CALIFORNIA — 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.
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.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday visited Ventura County, beset by the Thomas Fire, the biggest of the six fires currently raging. During his visit, Brown was expected to survey the damage and meet with affected residents and consult with government officials and emergency responders, his office said.
At an afternoon news conference, the governor praised the efforts of firefighters, law enforcement and conservationists as the state entered the sixth day of devastating wildfires.
But Brown also used his remarks to connect the ongoing fires to climate change, telling Californians that long wildfire fighting seasons “is the new normal.”
“We know from the changing of the climate that it’s going to exacerbate everything else,” he said.
His visit comes as strong Santa Ana winds could again fuel the flames, the National Weather Service said. Wind gusts in some areas could reach 55 mph on Sunday, the agency said.
The forecast could challenge firefighters, who by Friday had been able to halt the advance on three sides of the Thomas Fire, officials said.
“We continue to make real good progress on all of these fires,” said Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott. “But we’re far from being out of the woods on any of them.”
Together, the half dozen fires have scorched nearly 175,000 acres this week and have destroyed 792 structures, Pimlott said.
The White House has approved California’s request “for direct federal assistance to support the response” to the emergency, Brown’s office said Friday. President Donald Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate relief efforts in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
• Mobilization of resources: Nearly 1,000 fire departments across California are involved in firefighting efforts, Pimlott said, whether they’re in Southern California or covering local fire stations elsewhere to battle new fires. Gov. Brown authorized the deployment of more than 1,200 National Guard men and women to the southern region of the state to lend aid.
• Power outages: About 3,600 customers are without power because of the Lilac Fire, according to San Diego Gas & Electric. More than 3,200 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.
• More injuries: The Lilac Fire has left three people with burn injuries and two firefighters hurt. One firefighter suffered smoke inhalation; the second continued working after a dislocated shoulder was popped back into place, officials said.
7 images show why the Southern California wildfires are so dangerous
‘It’s not as important as my life’
The Creek Fire reduced 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 thousands of residents who were allowed back into their neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Riverside counties on Friday. Losses were minimal for some, 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 six blazes vary in size.
Thomas Fire: By Saturday, the largest of the fires had scorched at least 148,000 acres, with about 15% of it contained, according to Ventura County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Kevin Donoghue. At least 4,000 people were fighting it, Donoghue said.
The Thomas Fire started Monday in Ventura County and has since 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 15,619 acres and is 80% contained.
Rye Fire: It broke out Tuesday in Los Angeles County and has burned 6,049 acres. Firefighters are making progress, with 65% of the blaze contained.
Lilac Fire: This fast-moving fire has consumed 4,100 acres since it ignited 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 20% contained, and by Saturday had destroyed 105 structures and damaged 15 others, according to Cal Fire.
Skirball Fire: It started Wednesday as a brush fire in Los Angeles County. It has burned 475 acres and is now 50% contained.
Liberty Fire: The blaze in Riverside County has burned 300 acres since it ignited Thursday. It’s 90% contained.