Firefighter dies combatting California wildfire

By Susan McFarland, Danielle Haynes and Daniel Uria  |  Updated Dec. 14, 2017 at 6:34 PM
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Dec. 14 (UPI) -- A firefighter died while battling the massive Thomas Fire in Southern California on Thursday, state fire officials said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection issued a statement announcing an engineer from the San Diego Unit was killed by the largest of multiple wildfires burning through the area.

"I am very saddened to report that a firefighter fatality has occurred on the Thomas Incident," Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said. "More details will be made available as they are confirmed. In the meantime, please join me in keeping our fallen firefighter and his loved ones in your prayers and all the responders on the front lines in your thoughts as they continue to work under extremely challenging conditions."

The engineer, who drove a fire engine, was pronounced dead at the scene after he had been fighting on the east flank of the blaze in the Fillmore area and was on the fire line with a strike team of two or three other crew members, KTLA-TV in Los Angeles reported.

The firefighter's death was the second confirmed fatality linked to the wildfires after Virginia Pesola, 70, of Santa Paula, was found dead Dec. 6 at a car crash site along an evacuation route northeast of Ventura.

The Thomas Fire burned 242,500 acres as of Thursday, making it the state's fourth-largest wildfire in history.

Figures from Cal Fire at 11 a.m. said the blaze in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties has consumed about 379 square miles and was 30 percent contained. The Thomas Fire has destroyed 972 buildings, damaged 258 others and has forced thousands of evacuations. It started Dec. 4.

The Thomas Fire is the fourth-largest blaze by acreage since Cal Fire began keeping records in 1932.

Firefighters have begun to make progress on the fire, but authorities say there's still a long way to go.

Battalion chief Ron Mclaughlin told NPR the dry winds keeping the fire alive, being so close to the ocean, were an anomaly. In Montecito, final exams were rescheduled at University of California, Santa Barbara, and many residents were wearing surgical masks to guard against the smoky air.

The Thomas Fire is one of four active fires in Southern California.

The Creek Fire in Los Angeles County burned 15,619 acres as of Thursday with 98 percent containment.

The Skirball Fire in the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air was 422 acres as of Wednesday evening with 90 containment. The blaze destroyed six structures, damaged 12 others and injured three firefighters.

The Los Angeles Fire Department said it started at a homeless encampment near the 405 Freeway.

The Lilac Fire in San Diego County burned 4,100 acres as of 11 a.m. Thursday, with 97 percent containment. It destroyed 157 structures and damaged 64 others.

Three other wildfires -- the Liberty and Longhorn fires in Riverside County and the Rye Fire in Los Angeles County -- have been fully contained in recent days.

Officials say the fire danger remains dangerous, and the National Weather Service has projected winds to reach 50 mph in coming days. "Red flag warnings" will remain through Friday morning over the Los Angeles and Ventura County mountains and the Ventura County and Santa Clarita Valleys.

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