California firefighters make gains ahead of strong winds

As the dry Santa Ana winds that have fuelled the blazes abated slightly, officials lifted evacuation orders for parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

FILE: A screengrab of a man rescuing a rabbit from a wildfire in California. Picture: CNN

VENTURA - Firefighters across Southern California made progress on Saturday battling a slew of scattered wildfires that have killed at least one person, destroyed hundreds of buildings and forced more than 200,000 people from their homes this week.

As the dry Santa Ana winds that have fuelled the blazes abated slightly, officials lifted evacuation orders for parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and crews started getting the upper hand in containing some major fires.

But with the National Weather Service expecting a pickup in top wind velocity to 89km on Sunday from 64km per hour, the 8,700 firefighters battling six fast-moving blazes were under pressure to work quickly.

“We’re far from being out of the woods on any of them,” Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told a news briefing in Ventura.

At an evacuation shelter at the Ventura County Fairgrounds on Saturday, fluorescent lights shone above hundreds of cots set up in rows. Outside, dust and soot made it hard to breathe.

Surah Yasharal and Yaaqub Yoshua were at the shelter with their two toddlers, stuck there since arriving by Greyhound bus from Florida on Friday. They had planned to move into a guest house owned by Yoshua’s employer, but by Saturday they still had not learned whether it had survived.

“If it’s not there when we get there, we’ll go back to the drawing board,” said Yoshua, 26. “We’ll improvise.”

Marie Snyder was at the beach on Monday evening when the fire started. She could not return to her home in the community of Oak View, so she stayed with friends for a few days, coming to the shelter on Friday.

“We were down at the beach and all of a sudden it got really windy and then it got really warm,” she said. “And then I saw the moon was red.”

This week’s fires have destroyed nearly 800 buildings, mostly in Ventura County where the Thomas Fire, the largest blaze, erupted on Monday.