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Fire engineer dies fighting California’s growing Thomas Fire

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A firefighter was killed in southern California's massive Thomas Fire on Thursday. The blaze has grown rapidly, fueled by gusty Santa Ana winds, dry conditions and single-digit humidity.

Firefighters monitor a section of the Thomas Fire along the 101 freeway on December 7, 2017 north of Ventura, California. The firefighters occasionally used a flare device to burn-off brush close to the roadside. Strong Santa Ana winds are rapidly pushing multiple wildfires across the region, expanding across tens of thousands of acres and destroying hundreds of homes and structures. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The man, who hasn't been identified, was from a firefighting unit in San Diego. He drove a fire engine and was killed on the east flank of the Thomas Fire, said Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire. He was with a strike team of two or three other crew members and was pronounced dead on scene, she said.

The man's death was the first fatality of a firefighter in the recent string of fires burning in southern California. While most of the wildfires are at or near containment, the Thomas Fire was 30% contained Thursday, covering 242,500 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and was expected to grow.

"I am very saddened to report that a firefighter fatality has occurred on the Thomas Incident," Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said in a news release.

"More details will be made available as they are confirmed," Pimlott's statement said. "In the meantime, please join me in keeping our fallen firefighter and his loved ones in your prayers all the responders on the front lines in your thoughts as they continue to work under extremely challenging conditions."

"The winds will be kicking up quickly today and the offshore winds will once again bring the relative humidity critically low," CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said. "This will make the situation much tougher on the over 8,000 fire personnel fighting this fire."

"We could certainly see that 30% containment number go down as the fire responds to the stronger Santa Ana winds than what we have seen the past couple of days," he said.

Communities under threat

One of six major wildfires burning in Southern California, the Thomas Fire is already the fourth largest in California history, CalFire said. Nearly 1,000 fire engines and 27 helicopters are involved in battling the Thomas Fire alone, the agency said.

There has been one other death connected to the Thomas Fire: a woman who was killed in a car crash while evacuating last week. Tolmachoff said CalFire considers her death to be fire-related.

Winds in Southern California were fierce Thursday morning, with gusts stronger than 60 mph in the Los Angeles mountains and more typical gusts of 35 to 50 mph in the valleys and coastal areas.

Fire threatened the communities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito, according to CalFire. Crews were working to build fire lines north of those areas.

The Thomas fire broke out December 4 in Ojai, northwest of Los Angeles. Aided by the strong Santa Ana winds, it quickly spread to the city of Ventura, according to the federal InciWeb fire information website.

At least 95,000 residents have been evacuated in Southern California, CalFire said.

More than 1,000 structures have been damaged or destroyed in the Thomas Fire, and another 18,000 structures are threatened, CalFire said. The cause is under investigation.

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