California’s governor has said that deadly wildfires in the winter will be ‘the new normal’, as fire crews rushed to contain the fires, with dry desert winds expected to intensify over the weekend.
Governor Jerry Brown on Saturday toured Ventura County neighborhoods ravaged by a weeklong wildfire that killed at least one person and destroyed hundreds of homes and other buildings.
At a news conference, the Democrat said drought and climate change mean California faces a ‘new reality’ where lives and property are continually threatened by fire, at a cost of billions of dollars.
He added that gusty winds and low humidity are continuing and warned that there’s a good chance of seeing ‘firefighting at Christmas’.
He said it will take ‘heroic’ efforts in the US and abroad to stem climate change and urged US lawmakers to pay more attention to dealing with natural disasters such as fires, floods and earthquakes.
Over the past week, six major wildfires have forced more than 200,000 people to flee and choked the air across much of the region.
Forecasters predict wind gusts to become more intense by Saturday night, challenging the 8,700 firefighters who have been battling the fast-moving blazes for five days.
‘As we know, when a tornado hits the Midwest, there’s no stopping it. When a hurricane hits the East Coast, there’s no stopping it. When Santa Ana winds come in, there’s no stopping them,’ said Captain Kendal Bortisser of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.
Firefighters gained ground Friday, and some of the earliest evacuees who fled from flames Monday were being allowed to return home.
Yet new fires were popping up, and danger persisted. The vegetation is bone dry, and there’s been hardly any rainfall.
Winds were expected to gusts up to 40mph Saturday and up to 50mph Sunday in the Los Angeles and Ventura areas, the National Weather Service said.
The winds ‘potentially put the fires that are currently burning at risk of spreading,’ said Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for CAL FIRE.
Brown met at noon with residents and officials in Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles, where officials said the largest of the blazes, the Thomas Fire, has charred 148,000 acres and destroyed 537 structures.
‘We’re going to recover. Have no doubt about that,’ the governor said on Twitter on Friday.
The fires have taken people by surprise over a large swath of Southern California since the biggest fire broke out Monday evening in Ventura County.
There, the only death attributed to the fires so far involved a 70-year-old woman who was found dead in a wrecked car on a designated evacuation route in the small city of Santa Paula.
Virginia Pesola, 70, was found dead in Ventura on Wednesday. Officials said she had been fleeing the Thomas Fire – the oldest and biggest of the blazes – when she died.
Three people were also burned trying to escape a fast-moving fire that started Thursday 50 miles north of San Diego that overran a mobile home retirement community and a race horse training facility.
John Knapp did not initially believe a sheriff deputy’s order to leave when he first spotted the fire outside his home in the Rancho Monserate Country Club.
‘I thought he was full of bologna, but once I saw the flames and the smoke I thought that maybe he’s right,’ Knapp said.
After leaving, he watched from a nearby highway for five hours as the community went up in smoke.
More than a third of the community’s 213 mobile homes burned as fire zigzagged along a hillside, skipping some streets and razing others.
On one street, all 24 mobile homes were gone, with only hulls of cars and twisted metal remaining.
Knapp was sure he had seen his house burn on the television news, so he was expecting the worst when he snuck past a police barricade to witness the damage and was surprised to find it still standing.
Others who managed to get out with little more than the clothes on their backs were not as fortunate.
Dick Marsala was too overwhelmed to speak as he searched through the smoldering remnants of his house, trying to find his wallet. A framed photo of him playing golf was still hanging on a blackened wall.
‘I’ll be darned,’ he said, his eyes tearing up as he put on sunglasses.
Tom Metier, whose home was spared, zipped through the mobile home park in a golf cart, giving bad news to some of the neighbors who called him.
‘It’s really horrible to see some of these little streets look like a moonscape,’ he told a friend whose home was reduced to black rubble.
The flames that tore through Fallbrook, the self-proclaimed ‘Avocado Capital of the World,’ also hit hard in nearby town of Bonsall, where an estimated 30 to 40 elite thoroughbreds perished when the flames swept into barns at the San Luis Rey Training Facility.
Pandemonium broke out as hundreds of horses were set free to prevent them from burning in their stables. They nearly stampeded trainer Kim Marrs as she rescued a horse named Spirit World.
Marrs said it was devastating to see the remains of once regal animals.
‘It’s pretty apocalyptic,’ she said. ‘When you touch them it’s just ash.’