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Thomas Fire grows to 143,000 acres; some evacuation orders lifted

A motorists on Highway 101 watches flames from the Thomas fire leap above the roadway north of Ventura, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.
A motorists on Highway 101 watches flames from the Thomas fire leap above the roadway north of Ventura, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.
Noah Berger/AP

Updated 7:55 p.m.

Evacuations | School closures | Road closures | Air qualityMap | Ask us your questions!

The Thomas Fire raging in Ventura County grew to 143,000 acres Friday, even as authorities said they were finally getting a handle on the blaze. Evacuation orders were lifted for much of Ventura and Santa Paula on Friday afternoon.

Gov. Jerry Brown plans to visit the area on Saturday, meeting with residents from affected areas and surveying the damage.

The blaze prompted Brown to declare a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County. On Friday, the federal government approved the governor's request for direct assistance to support firefighting efforts as at least six major wildfires raked the Southern California region.

"California is grateful for the quick approval of our request and the ongoing efforts of local, state and federal emergency responders to protect communities across Southern California," Brown said in a written statement.

The Thomas Fire has spread to the county line, threatening homes and other structures as it burns along the 101 Freeway and into the back country west of Ojai. It has already destroyed at least 150 homes in the city of Ventura alone, and has damaged 81 structures and threatens 15,000 more.

Officials said that 712,000 gallons of water have been dropped on the Thomas Fire, and 4,000 personnel will be battling the blaze by Saturday.

The fire, which broke out Monday evening near Santa Paula and quickly spread all the way to the ocean, was only 10 percent contained on Friday. Expected containment remained unknown, and the cause was still under investigation, according to county officials.

On Friday afternoon, officials identified the only known victim of the Thomas Fire, 70 year-old Virginia Pesola. Her remains were found "at a vehicular crash site along the evacuation route," Ventura County Chief Medical Examiner Christopher Young said.

The cause of death was blunt force injuries, terminal smoke inhalation, and thermal injuries, Young said. Pesola's death is being investigated by the California Highway Patrol and Ventura County Sheriff's Department.

On Thursday, firefighters stopped the southern prong of the Thomas Fire from advancing along the coast, just east of the city of Carpinteria.

But later that evening officials placed the northeast part of Carpinteria under mandatory evacuations, even though the northern prong of the fire was still miles out of town. Westward expansion slowed on Friday, but officials remain concerned about threats to Carpinteria and Montecito.

Firefighters were able to tame the blaze on its south and east sides, with the help of fixed-wing aircraft.

The Thomas Fire burns near a school bus on December 7, 2017 in Ventura, California.
The Thomas Fire burns near a school bus on December 7, 2017 in Ventura, California.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Before any cleanup can begin, utility crews have a lot of work to do to repair the area’s infrastructure.

Ventura City Councilman Erik Nasarenko toured three charred, hillside neighborhoods on Tuesday: Ondulando, Skyline and Clear Point. 

"This is one of the heaviest hit areas of Ventura," Nasarenko told KPCC on Thursday.

The fire has devastated homes in the neighborhood. It has also created a significant infrastructure challenge, Nasarenko said.

The extent of that challenge is part of the reason Nasarenko can't even estimate when the neighborhoods would re-open to residents.

On his tour, he saw crews from SoCal Edison repairing downed lines everywhere. Power in the neighborhoods was out, and that posed another problem: no power, no water.

"The water pumps that get the water back into the tanks require power," he said. 

Many pumping stations are running on generators, Nasarenko said. 

He also saw gas crews digging streets and trenches so they can cap gas lines as a precautionary measure.

A boil water advisory that was issued earlier in the week has been lifted for some areas, but not all. The areas that still need to boil tap water for drinking and cooking are bounded by the following streets:

The city said it would send another update when tests confirmed water was safe to drink again.

In Santa Barbara County, evacuees were seeking refuge Friday morning at Jack's Bistro and Famous Bagels in downtown Carpinteria.

"We have not closed. We're staying open," manager Charla Marshall told KPCC's Take Two, adding that it has been a long week.

As a long-time resident of the area, Marshall was emotional as her team hustled to provide for all the locals.

"It was bittersweet. There were all these people that knew each other. They'd all had to be mandatory evacuated," Marshall said. "Some lost their homes. We had lots of dogs and cats and people hugging and crying. It was just an amazing day and we would never for a minute consider closing because we've been busy all week with these folks."

Marshall said for her it was nice to keep up with how everyone was doing, and it was important to offer something. She said they made a lot of coffee this week.

Still, she said, it's been hard.

"I have never seen anything like this in the 40 years I've been here. It's just really something else — throat's a little dry, eyes are a little sore. You know, it's been really heavy with the ash and the smoke, but we're fine. We're doing good."

The Thomas Fire burns a hillside behind Lake Casitas in Ventura, California on December 8, 2017. Firefighters are continuing to battle raging wildfires across southern California that have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, including residents on the outskirts of Los Angeles, America's second-largest city.
The Thomas Fire burns a hillside behind Lake Casitas in Ventura, California on December 8, 2017. Firefighters are continuing to battle raging wildfires across southern California that have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, including residents on the outskirts of Los Angeles, America's second-largest city.
KYLE GRILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

Evacuations

87,043 people had been evacuated due to the Thomas Fire, according to the Ventura County Fire Department. Most of the mandatory evacuations were lifted on Friday afternoon. They remain in effect in Fillmore and areas to the west.

When authorities urge people in fire zones to leave their homes, many don't listen — even to mandatory evacuation orders.
 
"Roughly about 20 to 25 percent of those that we contact actually leave. This isn't the first time that fire has come to the area. So many want to stay in their homes and kind of ride it out," Ventura County Sheriff's spokesman Garo Kuredjian told KPCC.
 
Fire officials don't recommend waiting.

Below is a list of mandatory and voluntary evacuations provided by Santa Barbara and Ventura county officials, as well as information on where the evacuations have been lifted:

Mandatory:

Voluntary:

Lifted: 

Evacuation shelters:

Animal evacuations:

Authorities are asking the public to call (866) 387-8911 for help with animal evacuations. Large animals can be evacuated at Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 W. Harbor Blvd., Ventura.

The Thomas Fire burns near an industrial area on December 7, 2017 in Ventura, California. The fire has destroyed 439 homes and burned 132,000 acres.
The Thomas Fire burns near an industrial area on December 7, 2017 in Ventura, California. The fire has destroyed 439 homes and burned 132,000 acres.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Road closures

Ventura County officials have announced the following hard road closures.

Ojai, Ojai Valley, and unincorporated areas:

City of Ventura and unincorporated areas:

City of Fillmore and unincorporated areas:

Santa Paula unincorporated area:

Santa Barbara County:

AMTRAK service has also been disrupted in Ventura County, with train tracks closed from Carpenteria to Faria Beach.

School closures

The following districts are closed:

Air quality

A man bicycles past bluffs burned in the Thomas Fire on December 7, 2017 in La Conchita, California.
A man bicycles past bluffs burned in the Thomas Fire on December 7, 2017 in La Conchita, California.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The fires raging across Southern California have sent plumes of thick smoke into the air and reduced air quality across the region.

"Our index has six levels, and the highest level is hazardous. Unfortunately, the Ojai Valley has been experiencing levels even higher than that — the levels are still off the charts," said Mallory Ham with Ventura's Air Pollution Control District.

That smoke contains particles that are small enough to burrow deep into human lungs.

The National Weather Service said shifting winds on Friday could drive the smoke back into coastal communities, from Ventura and Oxnard all the way to Santa Monica and into Los Angeles.

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Authorities are urging people who live in the area to use extreme caution and avoid vigorous outdoor or indoor exertion.

People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children should stay inside.

Close all windows and doors and run your air conditioner, if you have one.

ASK US YOUR QUESTIONS

KPCC journalists are covering the fires burning across Southern California and are working hard to answer community members' questions. Let us know what you need to know below.

 
 

This is a developing story.