Thomas Fire claims life of California firefighter

This article was updated with the latest information at 12:26 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 14.

(NBC Los Angeles) – A San Diego firefighter was killed battling the massive Thomas Fire as it continued to scorch parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, reaching 242,000 acres Thursday.

“I am very saddened to report that a firefighter fatality has occurred on the Thomas Incident,” a Cal Fire statement read.

His family was notified.

“Please join me in keeping our fallen firefighter and his loved ones in your prayers, all the responders on the front lines in your thoughts, as they continue to work under extremely challenging conditions,” said Cal Fire Director Chief Ken Pimlott.

The death is the second attributed to the fire, which as of Thursday morning had surpassed the 2007 Zaca fire to become the state’s fourth-largest wildfire on record. The 240,000-acre Zaca fire also scorched parts of Santa Barbara County and became the largest of several wildfires that burned in Southern California that year.

The Thomas fire first broke out as a brush fire on Monday, Dec. 4, and quickly grew larger and more destructive, destroying 930 structures and damaging another 193, according to Cal Fire. By Wednesday, containment was at 30 percent.

The October 2003 Cedar fire is the state’s largest wildfire on record. The inferno in San Diego County burned more than 273,000 acres and 2,800 buildings. Fifteen fatalities were reported.

Authorities said they expect full containment of the Thomas fire by Jan. 7, 2018. The cost associated with the damage of the blaze is $68.7 million. It is the ninth-most destructive wildfire in state history.

Active Santa Ana winds fueled the out-of-control brush fire, which prompted mandatory evacuations for hundreds of thousands of people in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. Evacuation orders remain in effect for:

  • Carpinteria, Santa Barbara County;
  • Montecito, Santa Barbara County;
  • Santa Barbara County – from east Mission Canyon Road to the west of Hwy 150;
  • Ventura – north of Foothill Road from Cobble Road to Kimball Road;
  • Rose Valley, Ventura County;
  • Matilija Canyon, Ventura County;
  • North Ventura County – from Hwy 33 on the north to Casitas Vista Road, northwest to Hwy 150, Hwy 150 west to 101 Fwy and south on the 101 Fwy to Emma Wood State Beach;
  • Casitas Springs, Ojai;
  • Fillmore – Hall Road to the west, Sespe Creek to the east, the Los Padres National Forest boundary to the north, and the Fillmore City limits to the south.

Voluntary evacuations were in effect for Goodenough Road.

Residents in this area should be prepared to leave on a moment’s notice, while those under mandatory evacuations should leave immediately, officials said.

Evacuation centers have opened at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Ventura County Fairgrounds at Miners Building and the Oxnard College Gymnasium. All animal evacuations are being handled at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

High fire risk is expected to last into January, adding to fears that 2017’s deadly and destructive wildfire danger will extend into early next year. Cal Fire reported 6,877 in California from Jan. 1 to Dec. 10 of this year. Those fires scorched more than 505,000 acres. During that same period last year, the state firefighting agency reported 4,754 fires that burned 244,303 acres.

The state is coming off one of its wettest winters in years in 2016-2017, which left hillsides covered in grass and other vegetation. That grass dried out in summer and turned into tinder, providing fuel for rapidly spreading fires often pushed by strong winds.

An increase in the number of dead and dying trees also can exacerbate the wildfire threat, Cal Fire officials said. An estimated 102 million trees have died in California due to the state’s five-year dry spell and bark beetle infestation.

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