California Fires Update

Dec 9, 2017
Originally published on December 9, 2017 9:27 am
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Wind-whipped wildfires continue to burn in half a dozen spots across Southern California. So far, the blazes have killed one person, dozens of horses and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. The largest blaze, known as the Thomas Fire, is in Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles. NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us from near the Thomas Fire in the smaller city of Ojai.

Eric, thanks so much for being with us.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And what's the latest on the largest of these fires near you?

WESTERVELT: Well, the Thomas Fire's only about 10 percent contained. It's burned almost 150,000 acres. And where I am in the Ojai Valley, these big, large flakes of ash continue to fall. There's a sort of blanket of smoke everywhere. Most people are wearing these white protective masks. There are these handwritten signs on cardboard posted all along roadways telling people to boil their water because electricity and water pumps have been affected in some areas.

The good news - evacuation orders were lifted last night for several parts of Ventura County here in the south. Also good news, the winds were relatively calm overnight, and that's helped firefighters. But, Scott, the forecasters are again warning that winds could strengthen again today and into tonight. So everyone here is again monitoring the wind and hoping for the best.

SIMON: You spoke with the fire captain, I gather.

WESTERVELT: I did. I mean, visibility here is really low because of this wind-whipped smoke. And it's a huge challenge. I talked to a firefighter last night named Pete Jensen. He's a captain with the Ventura County Fire Department. I mean, he was working on this rural road up the valley, helping protect homes and ranches, moving around really all night doing that. He said it's a little like flying blind, though. He told me, in several areas, firefighters are having a lot of trouble, you know, actively attacking this fire because they simply can't see it.

PETE JENSEN: Unless you can actually see the active flames, it's tough to identify new smoke from old smoke. And in some areas, we can't even see the ridge lines because the smoke's so thick. And then on top of that, because of that cap of smoke, we can't get aircraft in to be able to see because of the visibility.

WESTERVELT: And Scott, he added, firefighters in several areas are still in really what he called a defensive mode, trying to protect homes, but not directly fighting the blaze aggressively. He said given the tough terrain and the wind, quoting here, "we have to just stand back and let this thing eat."

SIMON: There has been one death reported, which seems kind of remarkable given the flames that we've been seeing. What can you tell us about that?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, 70-year-old Virginia Pesola was killed in a car accident fleeing the Thomas Fire. And a medical examiner's office says she died from the crash as well as smoke inhalation, burns. And it is astonishing that, Scott, there have been more deaths given, really, the ferocity, the speed, the power of all these fires.

I mean, remember in the Napa and Sonoma fires in October up north, more than 40 people were killed. And I think the difference this time may be, in part, you know, this broader warning alert that went out to people via cellphone. And

Scott, anecdotally anyway, down here, you know, people are telling me - look, those deadly fires were certainly on our minds when these broke out. And that may have helped them react fast and really heed the call from firefighters to evacuate.

SIMON: NPR's Eric Westervelt in the Ojai Valley in Ventura County. Thanks so much for being with us, Eric.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.