VENTURA, Calif. — There’s one thing constant as the ever-growing Thomas Fire enters its fifth day Friday — relentless winds.
Santa Ana winds continued to make the 132,000-acre, or 206.5-square mile, fire more dangerous, spreading flames north of Ojai city limits, past La Conchita and into Santa Barbara County.
Wind speeds were expected to average 15-30 mph, with gusts up to 45 mph, according to forecast information from the National Weather Service. By Friday evening, winds are expected to drop to around 15 mph. However, winds remain in the forecast through Saturday night, along with single-digit relative humidity and above-average temperatures, leading the National Weather Service to extend its red-flag fire warning for the county through Sunday.
The Ventura County, Calif., fire is now 10% contained.
On Friday, President Trump approved an emergency declaration for California.
In a statement, the declaration orders "Federal assistance to supplement State, tribal, and local response efforts due to the emergency conditions resulting from wildfires beginning on December 4, 2017, and continuing."
The declaration enables the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide assistance "to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in the counties of Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura."
California Gov. Jerry Brown had requested the emergency declaration.
New developments of the fire had authorities concerned most of Thursday, not just because of the expansion but its trajectory into dry fuel beds.
Cal Fire Capt. John Clingingsmith said the Ojai Valley and La Conchita haven’t had a history of fires.
“There’s a lot of dead fuels up there,” said Clingingsmith. “And when we have no fire history, that could be decades worth of dead slash and trees and brush and everything.”
New fire activity continued throughout the county, including in a remote area near Fillmore and Santa Paula that produced big plumes of smoke. By late Thursday, authorities said they were able to get a handle on much of the fire perimeter and make progress on mopping up problem areas.
Strong winds, which haven’t taken a break since the fire started near Santa Paula on Monday, have limited aircraft deployment as well as the possibility of displaced residents being allowed to return soon.
Officials said there’s been a lack of qualified damage-assessment teams available in recent days to quantify the number of homes destroyed by the fire. Officials announced that 439 structures had been destroyed and 85 damaged.
Gabriela Gutierrez was among those who lost her home.
Gutierrez and her husband, along with their two young children, evacuated their home in a Santa Paula, Calif., mobile home park Monday evening. The first warning was a call from the family’s baby sitter saying some people were being evacuated. Then a security guard knocked on their door encouraging them to pack essentials.
“I couldn’t believe it until I went outside and I saw flames, and there was some smoke,” she said.
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On Thursday morning, Gutierrez stopped in at the Santa Paula Community Center, one of six evacuation centers set up in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. For days, people had been dropping off donations of water, food and clothing. Kids played cards and video games as adults rested on cots.
Kay Wilson-Bolton, a chaplain with the Ventura County Fire Department who also works with area homeless people, said the outpouring of charity means basic needs are being met. What will be needed next, she said, are places for displaced people to eat a home-cooked meal or take a shower, the things that will help them feel normal again.
“It’s a lesson on how we should hang on to things on earth very loosely,” Wilson-Bolton said. She evacuated her home Tuesday and has been sleeping at her office. Her home survived.
The unpredictability of the wind seems to be the overarching theme of this massive fire, which Thursday moved toward Las Padres National Forest. The winds are expected to weaken but they're not going away.
In semi-rural San Diego County, at least 65 structures had been destroyed. Cal Fire said there's still no containment of the fire early Friday.
That fire exceeded 3,840 acres, or 6 square miles in a matter of hours Thursday and burned dozens of houses as it tore through the tightly packed Rancho Monserate Country Club community in the small city of Fallbrook.
Contributing: Barrett Newkirk, Megan Diskin and Christian Martinez, Ventura County (Calif.) Star; The Associated Press. Follow Wendy Leung on Twitter: @Leung__Wendy