Firefighter Killed Battling Thomas Fire, Winds Pose New Threat (Video)

Thomas Fire Rages On (Image courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department via Twitter)
Thomas Fire Rages On (Image courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department via Twitter)

By Joseph Serna, Brittny Mejia and Javier Panzar, the Los Angeles Times

A firefighter died Thursday while battling the Thomas fire as authorities braced for new powerful winds that could pose threats to homes in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Officials said a combination of Santa Ana and sundowner winds will hit the area from Thursday through Sunday, bringing new dangers to a fire that now ranks as the fourth-largest in the state’s modern history.

As they prepare for the new battle, firefighters were also grappling with loss.

“I am very saddened to report that a firefighter fatality has occurred on the Thomas Incident,” Chief Ken Pimlott, the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in a statement.

“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.”

Pimlott identified the firefighter as fire apparatus engineer Cory Iverson, 32.

Iverson was assigned to the fire as a part of a strike team from Cal Fire’s San Diego unit.

He started with Cal Fire in 2009. He is survived by his wife, Ashley, and their 2-year-old daughter Evie. The family is expecting a second daughter this spring.

(Cory Iverson died while working. Courtesy of ABC 10 News and YouTube. Posted on Dec 14, 2017)

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Cory’s family and all of his friends and co-workers throughout the department and the fire service,” he said.

He said an accident review team would investigate the circumstances of Iverson’s death.

Chief Ken Pimlott, the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
Chief Ken Pimlott, the director of the California Department of Forestry
and Fire Protection

“While we continue to process this tragic loss, we must keep our focus on the fire.”

“The fire fight in front of us continues to go on,” he said.

“The communities we are protecting are depending on us, and we will not fail.”

At 4 p.m., the body of the firefighter was loaded into a hearse and taken away, with firefighters lining the road in tribute.

Just hours before Iverson’s death, Pimlott appeared at a morning briefing where he emphasized safety over complacency.

It’s during what seems like the least dangerous times — while mopping up hot spots, cutting burned trees or striding though charred rubble — that most injuries occur, he said.

(A Cal Fire engineer with a pregnant wife died on the front lines of the Thomas Fire Thursday, authorities have confirmed. Courtesy of CBS Los Angeles and YouTube. Posted on Dec 14, 2017)

While strategy was discussed as usual, there was an emphasis on staying vigilant as the fire’s eastern flank winds down.

A retiring corrections officer warned firefighters not to become complacent during this incident, and said that should they find themselves relaxing, they should think about their colleagues who have been injured or lost their lives in seemingly low-risk situations.

Initially, fire officials had said they did not believe the 10-alarm fire was suspicious. But once they began investigating the charred remains in detail, they began to rethink the cause, Fire Chief Paul Ciccone said.

Despite a couple of days of reduced winds and feverish efforts by firefighters to establish new containment lines, the 249,500-acre Thomas fire has surpassed the size of the Zaca fire, which scorched Santa Barbara County in 2007, according to Dave Zaniboni, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Firefighters hope the 240,207-acre Zaca fire burn scar, as well as the younger vegetation it contains, will help them fight the Thomas fire’s growth along its western edge.

Firefighters have taken advantage of a two-day lull in winds to increase fire containment to 35%.

Those efforts could be tested soon, however, as forecasters predict a new blast of Santa Ana winds Thursday, and sundowner winds over Santa Barbara County on Friday.

In Thursday’s incident report, fire officials said they didn’t expect to reach full containment of the blaze until Jan. 7 — more than three weeks from now.

(Thomas Fire officials hold a press briefing to discuss the latest updates on the fire. Courtesy of KEYT – KCOY – KKFX News and YouTube. Posted on Dec 14, 2017)

The state of California began keeping records of wildfire acreage in 1932.

While other large fires raged on the West Coast prior to that year, those records are less reliable, according to Cal Fire.

At the morning briefing Thursday, fire commanders said another day of extremely low humidity and moderate winds would greet firefighters as they continued to build containment lines above Carpinteria, Montecito and Santa Barbara.

The mountains north of the coast produce notoriously unpredictable and dangerous conditions for firefighters, said fire behavior analyst Tim Chavez.

In the Matilija wilderness, which straddles the border between the two counties, observers saw 50-foot flames backing down a hillside overnight, he said.

It’s unusual to see flames that tall working their way down a mountain, officials said.

“This thing is 60 miles long and 40 miles wide,” Chavez said of the blaze. “There’s a lot of fire out there.”

Gusty Santa Ana winds are expected for Los Angeles and Ventura counties Thursday, said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service.

In the mountains, gusts of 55 mph are possible.

In the valleys, 15 to 25 mph gusts are predicted, with some gusts of up to 40 mph, Seto said. Over the past few days, a break in the weather has allowed firefighters to increase containment.

“That’s the thing, it’s just going to do the opposite now. The humidities are still down in the single digits,” Seto said.

“These winds, especially in the mountain areas, are really going to start blowing the fire around again. What it does is carry the embers further down and can create more fires.”

Winds will be north to northeast, and usually the Ventura side is more affected than the Santa Barbara side, Seto said.

(As the Thomas Fire continues to grow and threaten communities, the destructive blaze is now considered the fourth largest wildfire in California history. Courtesy of ABC7 and YouTube. Posted on Dec 14, 2017)

“But it’s still going to have an effect up in the mountain areas of Santa Barbara,” he added.

Winds up there will be up to 25 mph and a little gusty, “so there’s still going to be a big concern up in that area,” he said.

Throughout mountain areas on Thursday there’s a greater risk for large fire plumes, which can cause erratic fire behavior.

Death toll rises to at least 41 as 10000 firefighters battle blazes (Image courtesy of The Los Angeles Times and YouTube)

“It carries the heat up, and it looks like a thunderstorm cloud,” Seto said. “From there, the fire could spread out.”

“Sometimes they collapse, and it’s a strong down-rush of winds and it spreads the fire.”

Sundowner winds are expected Friday into Saturday in the Santa Barbara area. On Sunday, winds are expected to return to offshore conditions, Seto said.

The fire has destroyed more than 900 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties since it began Dec. 4 near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula.

In its first day, the fire spread southwest, toward Ventura, and northwest, eventually hugging Ojai before pushing to the Central Coast.

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Editor’s note. Our condolences to the Cal Fire’s San Diego Unit. Our prayers are with firefighter Iverson’s family, and all those brave firefighters and first responders bravely battling the wildfires in California.