Thomas Fire has scorched hundreds of houses, charred more than 235,000 acres of Ventura and Santa Barbara land, and choked the coastal air. But little has been reported about the one confirmed death.
Virginia Rae Pesola was found dead on December 6 in her car on Wheeler Canyon Road, two miles north of Santa Paula’s Foothill Road, which was under mandatory evacuation orders. Pesola was reportedly fleeing her Santa Paula home. She was 70 years old.
Ventura officials reported Pesola died in a “traffic incident during an active fire evacuation.” The cause of death was “blunt force trauma” and “terminal smoke and burns.” Wheeler Canyon had quickly become engulfed in flames. A Ventura County Sheriff’s spokesperson said Pesola’s vehicle crashed into another object. No other cars were involved. Wheeler Canyon is just southwest of Thomas Aquinas College, where the first calls of a fire came in. Further details about the cause of the crash are unknown, authorities said.
Pesola worked for the County of Santa Barbara for three years about 20 years ago. Shane Stark, former Santa Barbara county counsel, remembered Pesola to be smart, ethical, and funny, with “a distinctive fashion and aesthetic sensibility.” He hired her from the Los Angeles law firm Burke, Williams & Sorensen in 1996 to be a land use litigator. She went to work for the Court of Appeal in Ventura as a research attorney.
While in the County Counsel’s Office, Stark said Pesola’s major triumph was shepherding the Adult Entertainment Ordinance through the planning process. The ordinance regulates State Street stores that sell sex toys and pornographic films. It involved interesting First Amendment issues and outraged citizens, Stark said, adding the one they permitted in the 1990s is still in business.
Pesola was able to force Los Angeles adult entertainment attorneys to back down, who had threatened to sue, Stark said — all while wearing a leopard pantsuit and “a leather number.” “Virginia loved the law, old rock-n-roll, and life — and she lived it fully,” Shark said. “It’s sad that she passed soon after she began a well-deserved retirement.”
Pesola worked for the Court of Appeal for 12 years. There she earned the reputation of being bright, fierce, and genuinely likable, said Justice Steven Perren, for whom Pesola worked for four years beginning in 2008. “By fiercely independent,” Perren said, “I mean she was independent to the point of being quirky, but I mean that in a good way.” She always spoke her mind but never let her opinions get in the way of her professionalism, he said. Perren described her as “a challenge and a pleasure.”
Pesola had no kids of her own, but she was a mother figure to her nieces and nephews, Perren said.