Local

Thomas Fire grows slightly; now at 15 percent containment

Flames consume vehicles as a wildfire rages in Ventura on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017.
Flames consume vehicles as a wildfire rages in Ventura on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017.
Noah Berger/AP

The largest fire currently burning in Southern California grew overnight by 5,000 acres. As of Saturday evening, the Thomas Fire has burned 155,000 acres in Ventura County and destroyed at least 537 structures and damaged another 118.

The Ventura County Fire Department said firefighters made some headway on surrounding the fire Friday night and Saturday. Some 4,400 personnel are assigned to fight the Thomas Fire.

New mandatory evacuations were ordered Saturday morning for areas from Rancho Matilija west to Lake Casitas, including Highway 150 west to the Santa Barbara County line. Since the fire erupted, 88,000 residents have been evacuated.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff downgraded evacuation orders to warnings for the Shepherd Mesa and Gobernado Canyon areas. Evacuations are still in place for Rincon Point, but have been lifted for the city of Carpinteria.

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Authorities lifted evacuations in the city of Ventura and in a portion of the county along Ventura Avenue on Saturday afternoon. Mandatory evacuations remained in place for neighborhoods north of Poli Street and Foothill Road.

New red flag warnings of high fire danger are in effect for the Santa Barbara Mountains.

Governor Jerry Brown visited the region Saturday, after declaring a state of emergency in neighboring Santa Barbara County. At an afternoon press conference, Brown highlighted the influence of climate change on fire risk in California. 

"We're experiencing what it's going to look like on a very regular basis," Brown said, telling Californians to expect more droughts, higher temperatures and a year-round fire season.

The Ventura County Fire Department said the cost of fighting the fire, which broke out Monday near Santa Paula, has reached $17 million. 

Residents walk amidst the remains of an apartment complex destroyed by the Thomas Fire in a residential neighborhood on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura.
Residents walk amidst the remains of an apartment complex destroyed by the Thomas Fire in a residential neighborhood on Dec. 5, 2017 in Ventura.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Winds were light Saturday morning. Ventura County fire spokesman Richard Macklin said gusts up to 20 miles per hour would change the fire's behavior from earlier in the week, when it was spread rapidly by winds 40 mph and higher.

"This fire is now transitioning from a wind driven fire to a topography driven fire," Macklin said. 

A finger of fire burning along south-facing mountain slopes west of Ojai and Highway 33 is moving toward Santa Barbara County. The fire is also moving along the Pacific coastline between Ventura toward the county line.

An apartment complex burns as a wildfire rages in Ventura, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017.
An apartment complex burns as a wildfire rages in Ventura, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017.
Noah Berger/AP

At one point, as the fire approached the county line and spread along the 101 freeway and west of Ojai, 15,000 homes were threatened.

Julia Whitman owns and runs the Blue Iguana Inn and the Emerald Iguana Inn in Ojai. She stayed, despite orders to evacuate. She closed her inns for regular business, but kept them open for some residents affected by mandatory evacuations. 

"At no point did the fire ever endanger either of the properties, but we could definitely see the flames," Whitman said. "The town is quite quiet, kind of a ghost town since most people have left."

Nearly 90,000 people had been evacuated due to the fire, with mandatory evacuations lifted for the cities of Ventura and Santa Paula by Friday afternoon. Fillmore and areas to the west remained under evacuation orders. 

Several of the ten mobile home trailers that burned in the Thomas Fire in the Santa Paula area are seen early Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.
Several of the ten mobile home trailers that burned in the Thomas Fire in the Santa Paula area are seen early Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

Cindy Huge with American Red Cross said about 230 people sheltered at the Ventura County Fairgrounds evacuation site on Friday night. She said as of Saturday morning, it was unclear when they will be allowed to return to their homes. 

One death has been confirmed. The Ventura County Medical Examiner said the body of 70-year-old Virginia Pesola from Santa Paula was found in Wheeler Canyon on Wednesday night at the scene of a car crash along an evacuation route.

"The cause of death is blunt force injuries with terminal smoke inhalation and thermal injuries," said  Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Young