Tens of thousands of people have been forced from their homes, thousands of acres scorched and hundreds of buildings reduced to ash. It hasn’t even been one week since the latest string of wildfires broke out in Southern California, but the toll is staggering.
Even so, by Saturday, some bright spots began to emerge in the fire-ravaged region.
The Santa Ana winds, with gusts that had measured at hurricane force earlier in the week helping drive the flames, had subsided by Friday evening. Firefighters took advantage of the lull to gain some ground on the fires.
On Saturday, the Thomas Fire in Ventura County — the biggest of the area blazes — was 15 percent contained and had burned around 150,000 acres.
“Milder winds allowed more helicopters and air tankers to make fire retardant and water drops,” reports freelancer Danielle Karson from Pasadena.
Southeast in Los Angeles County, firefighters were also making headway on three other blazes: The Rye and Creek fires were at 65 percent and 80 percent containment respectively, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
And the Skirball fire, which burned in the pricey residential neighborhood of Bel-Air and took several homes with it, was at 50 percent containment, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.
But even with the winds’ reprieve, firefighters braced for their forceful return.
On Saturday, the National Weather Service issued a high wind warning in San Diego, with gusts predicted to reach 60 mph or higher through Sunday afternoon.
The Lilac Fire in San Diego County overran a mobile home retirement community as well as a horse training facility, where dozens of horses died in the blaze, The Associated Press reports.
It had burned 4,100 acres and 100 structures by Saturday and was 20 percent contained.
Dick Marsala was overcome with emotion as he sifted through the ash of his home trying to find his wallet. He came across a photograph of himself playing golf. “I’ll be darned” was all he could manage, reports the AP, as he teared up.
Tom Metier’s own home was spared, but he reflected on the damage in his community. “It’s really horrible to see some of these little streets look like a moonscape,” he told the wire service.
In Los Angeles and Ventura counties, a red flag warning remained in effect through Sunday — meaning conditions were prime for the spread of fires. Forecasters said the Santa Ana winds there would be 30 to 40 mph on Saturday but could pick up to 55 mph on Sunday. The winds, combined with low humidity, could lead to what the NWS called “critical” fire conditions through the weekend.
At their peak, the fires chased 212,000 Californians from their homes, according to the AP’s count. But by Friday, evacuation orders stemming from the Creek Fire in Los Angeles County were lifted. And most of the city of Ventura was allowed back home after evacuation orders from the Thomas Fire.
Weary area residents had to contend with yet another consequence from the wildfires: poor air quality.
The Environmental Protection Agency says several parts of the region will experience unhealthy levels of air pollution through the weekend.
“These big large flakes of ash continue to fall,” NPR’s Eric Westervelt reports from the Ojai Valley. “There’s a sort of blanket of smoke everywhere. Most people are wearing these white protective masks.”
Officials in Ventura County said, “In the Ojai Valley and surrounding areas, the air quality is extremely bad with the last couple of days at the Very Unhealthy/Hazardous levels. In fact, the numbers are off the charts for AQI (air quality index) readings.”
Hospitals across Southern California have seen a sharp uptick in emergency room patients complaining of breathing problems this week, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Officials say residents can take a few basic steps to protect themselves including reducing physical activity, wearing a mask outside, staying inside as much as possible and not worsening indoor air by burning logs or even incense.
At least one death has been attributed to the fires. The Ventura County Medical Examiner Office said a 70-year-old woman from Santa Paula got into a traffic accident during an evacuation earlier in the week and died from blunt force injuries with terminal smoke inhalation and thermal injuries.
With dust-dry vegetation, very little rain and nagging winds, the peril persists.
Gov. Jerry Brown remained optimistic as he was scheduled to visit the scene of the Thomas Fire. “We’re going to recover,” Brown tweeted on Friday. “Have no doubt about that.”