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1st death in California wildfires reported, firefighters make progress

by Phil Helsel /  / Updated 
Image: California Wildfires
A motorists on Highway 101 watches flames from the Thomas fire leap above the roadway north of Ventura, California on Dec. 6, 2017.Noah Berger / AP

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LOS ANGELES — Wind-whipped wildfires that have incinerated hundreds of homes in Southern California continued to rage Saturday after easing slightly for firefighters under siege for a sixth day on the front lines.

The punishing blazes have deteriorated air quality and forced thousands from their homes. Authorities said Friday that a 70-year-old woman died in a car crash fleeing the massive wildfire burning in Ventura County — the first fatality reported from the six major fires in the region this week.

Virginia Pesola, of Santa Paula, died in a traffic crash "during active fire evacuation" on Wednesday night, the Ventura County medical examiner said. The cause of death was listed as blunt force injuries with terminal smoke inhalation and thermal injuries. The crash was along an evacuation route.

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The so-called Thomas Fire in Ventura County has burned 148,000 acres and has destroyed more than 530 structures since it broke out on Monday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. It was 15 percent contained as of Saturday morning, officials said. The fire, like others burning in Los Angeles County and the city, have been fanned by powerful Santa Ana winds.

There was some good news on Friday in the fight against the Thomas Fire. The city of Santa Paula, a community of nearly 30,000 east of the city of Ventura, lifted mandatory evacuation orders within city limits. Evacuation orders were also lifted in some parts of the city of Ventura.

On Saturday, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office also reduced its evacuation order from mandatory to a warning for parts of the county north of the 101 freeway.

Related: Southern California wildfires grow, threatening more homes

"Very successful day on the fire line today,” Cal Fire Deputy Chief Mark Brown said at a Friday night news conference.

The Thomas Fire has destroyed 158 single-family homes in the city of Ventura and 18 homes in unincorporated areas of the county, while damage assessments are continuing in other communities, Todd Durham, the incident commander for Cal Fire Incident Management Team Four, said Friday night.

More progress has also been made in fighting the Skirball Fire, which broke out in the tony Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Fire Department said. That fire, at 475 acres, was 50 percent contained as of Saturday morning.

The Rye Fire that has burned a little more than 6,000 acres in the Santa Clarita area was 65 percent contained, and the Creek Fire that has burned more than 15,600 acres near the Los Angeles community of Sylmar was 80 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

But a new fire that broke out in San Diego County on Thursday, the Lilac Fire, has burned 4,100 acres and destroyed at least 105 structures, Cal Fire said. It was 20 percent contained as of Saturday morning.

Related: Despite wildfires, here's why many in California plan to stay

Santa Ana winds, which send hot, dry air from inland into Southern California, are predicted to remain in some parts of the fire zones through Sunday. National Weather Service meteorologist Rich Thompson said that weak Santa Ana winds were predicted to blow across the Thomas Fire on Friday night before weakening further Saturday, and will restrengthen Saturday night and into Sunday.

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