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Body found in burn area as Thomas fire spreads along California coast

Fire crews work to put out flames to stop it from spreading, on North Rice Road in Ojai, Calif., on Dec. 7, 2017. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Authorities on Thursday said a woman’s body was found in a burn area near Ojai, as firefighters continued to battle several massive wildfires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

The 96,000-acre Thomas fire burned even further along the coast of Ventura County, prompting officials to close a 20-mile stretch of the 101 Freeway between Ventura and Carpinteria overnight. By 7:30 a.m., authorities had reopened the freeway, but provided conflicting details.

The California Highway Patrol said the freeway was open to motorists with a police escort only. However, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department announced that the coastal freeway had been reopened at 7 a.m., but urged motorists to exercise caution and watch out for firefighting equipment in burn areas.

As fire-stoking stoking Santa Ana winds picked up again Thursday morning, authorities extended a regionwide red flag warning to Saturday.

The fire grew in two directions overnight: Santa Ana winds from the northeast pushed flames toward Carpinteria and the small town of La Conchita, but the fire also moved in the opposite direction toward Ojai and the Los Padres National Forest, likely driven by the topography and chaparral that acts as fuel, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Marisol Rodriguez.

Although winds helped push the Thomas fire toward Carpinteria and the small town of La Conchita, they were largely calm in the city of Ojai, which has eyed approaching flames anxiously. The fire there has been driven into the Las Padres National Forest by topography and chaparral that acts as fuel, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Marisol Rodriguez.

“It was truly a miracle that the predicted fierce winds failed to materialize — we were waiting for them, but they didn’t come,” said Rudy Livingston, Ojai’s finance director. “All I can say is, ‘Thank God.’ If they come, it would be been very ugly here.”

On Wednesday night, wildfires raced westward along mountains north of town, forming an eerie bright orange line of flames several miles long. Just south of Ojai city limits, fire crews were attacking smoldering hot spots with water and hand tools.

The woman’s body was found Wednesday night at the site of a car accident on Wheeler Canyon Road. The cause of death and the woman’s identity have not been determined, said Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Donoghue.

In La Conchita, firefighters were able to defend the small beach community overnight. The few residents who stayed behind kept dousing water over their homes as a precaution, even as firefighters told them not to help.

Around 3:30 a.m., the fire from the hillside made it to the backyard of Julio Valera’s home.

Valera, 66, said he and his wife had packed up their belongings into their car. His wife left, but Valera stayed behind to keep an eye on the house.

When the flames reached a tall and dry pine tree next to his home, his jaw dropped. The flames exploded. Valera held his forehead.

“Oh man,” said Valera, who has lived in La Conchita for about 30 years.

Next door embers had caused an empty home to burn. It was the only structure in the vicinity that was destroyed.

Hours later, Valera’s eyes were red from the smoke, his hair uncombed.

“I feel such a relief,” Valera said.

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© 2017 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.