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Dec 15, 4:05 PM EST

Winds temporarily calm on lines of huge California wildfire

AP Photo
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) -- Calming winds Friday gave firefighters a chance to gain ground against a huge wildfire in coastal mountains northwest of Los Angeles but forecasters warned that conditions would remain dry and warm and the respite from gusts would only be temporary.

Red Flag warnings for the critical combination of low humidity and strong winds expired for a swath of Southern California at midmorning but a new warning was scheduled to go into effect Saturday in the fire area due to the predicted return of winds.

The so-called Thomas Fire, the fourth-largest in California history, was 35 percent contained after sweeping across more than 394 square miles (1,020 sq. kilometers) of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties since it erupted Dec. 4 a few miles from Thomas Aquinas College.

One focus of firefighting was on the eastern flank in canyons where a state firefighter was killed Thursday near the agricultural town of Fillmore.

The death of Cory Iverson, 32, was announced by Chief Ken Pimlott of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection but he released no information about the circumstances, citing an ongoing investigation by an accident review team.

Iverson was an engineer with a strike team from the San Diego area and had been with Cal Fire since 2009. He is survived by his wife, who is pregnant, and a 2-year-old daughter, as well as his parents and other family.

Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean called for a moment of silence during a meeting for Fillmore residents Thursday night.

"As I was up in the canyon and I watched his fire brethren remove his flag-draped body from the canyon in the hills above where we sit right here, I couldn't help but think about his pregnant wife and his young daughter who will never see their husband and father again," Dean said.

Tony Meacham, a Cal Fire official in the San Diego area, told reporters Thursday that Iverson was in a very active part of the fire when he was killed, but he gave no other details. The other firefighters on the strike team were pulled off the fire lines.

"This incident has shaken our organization to the core," Meacham said.

It was the second death linked to the fire. The body of a 70-year-old woman was found in a crashed car on an evacuation route last week.

Some evacuations were lifted in areas where the fire had long since passed. But firefighters continued to construct fire lines in the hills above the coastal communities of Santa Barbara, Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria.

The National Weather Service predicted an overnight Sundowner, the local name for a northerly wind that sweeps down the face of the Santa Ynez Mountains toward Santa Barbara and out to sea. The wind will then shift and blow out of the northeast, becoming the Santa Anas that have fanned many destructive fires in Southern California. Conditions were forecast to remain windy well into next week across the region.

Santa Barbara has had only a tiny amount of rain since Oct. 1, the start of the new water year, and is more than 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) below normal to date.

The blaze has so far destroyed more than 700 single-family houses, some 200 other buildings and damaged many others. Evacuation orders have affected more than 94,000 people since the fire began.

More than 8,000 firefighters were on the lines, assisted by 32 helicopters, more than a thousand fire engines and water tenders.

Firefighting costs topped $88.8 million by early Friday, Cal Fire said.

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