Incident commanders are voicing considerable optimism about their ability to keep the giant Thomas Fire from blowing up again Wednesday night, when sundowner winds are expected to rake the mountains above Santa Barbara, Montecito and Summerland.
The Thomas Fire had no growth Tuesday night — as of Wednesday morning, the fire was still 272,000 acres, and crews increased containment overnight to 60 percent.
“I feel confident,” Chris Childers, a battalion chief with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, told Noozhawk Tuesday afternoon. “We flew it today. My partner was less confident, and after we flew it, he’s confident now, too.”
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What firefighters are calling a “wind event” — ripping downslope from the north at 15 to 30 mph with gusts to 50 mph — is expected to kick off between 6 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, and continue through the night before diminishing by mid-morning Thursday.
“The wind is going to be huge,” Childers said. “Either we still fight fire after it, or we’re done … The whole team is all in agreement that this wind will be our test, and if we pass that test, we’re done.”
In preparing for that challenge, crews have spent the last three days building and expanding containment lines and cooling off hot spots near the edges and within the fire.
In and around structures in the foothills, firefighters have continued their “seek and destroy missions” aimed at locating and dousing embers and hot spots.
“We have the edge pretty well protected,” Childers said. “I’m feeling pretty good.”
As of Tuesday night, the Thomas fire had charred 272,000 acres, and was closing in on the top spot on the state’s list of largest wildfires, currently held by the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County, which burned 273,246 acres.
With burnout and other operations that are planned in coming days, there is little doubt the Thomas Fire, now No. 2 on the list, will become the state’s largest-recorded wildfire.
As they were on Saturday, when early morning winds gusting to 65 mph caused the fire to explode and blacken more than 11,000 acres in about 12 hours, dozens of engines are positioned in threatened neighborhoods above Summerland, Montecito and Santa Barbara, and dozens more are staged at the Santa Barbara Polo Grounds and are ready to respond to any flare-ups, Childers noted.
One area of concern for fire managers is a stand of dense and desicated chaparral, dating to the early 1960s, that was not burned by the 2009 Jesusita Fire.
In that canyon — below East Camino Cielo and northwest of Flores Flat — crews spent the Monday and Tuesday building containment lines and laying down retardant to prevent any flames whipped up by Wednesday’s winds from gaining a toe-hold in the thick vegetation.
“I think we have it out, but that could be the only old fuels that could be exposed to the weather in front,” Childers said.
North of the mountains, firefighters had a good day working in the area in and around Pendola Station, upstream on the Santa Ynez River from Gibraltar Reservoir, according to Childers.
The last remaining hot spot was in an area where flames had moved north up Agua Caliente Creek, but he indicated crews had the situation there in hand.
Progress also was made on the fire’s northern flank, along Highway 33 near Rose Valley and above the city of Fillmore, near the Sespe Wilderness.
With conditions improving Monday and Tuesday, fire officials reduced or eliminated several evacuation orders and warnings from Carpinteria to the city of Santa Barbara, but it seemed unlikely there will be more evacuation changes prior to Wednesday’s wind event.
Nothing is certain with a wildfire of this magnitude, but several fire officials told Noozhawk they expect most or all evacuation orders to be reduced, if not eliminated, on Thursday, assuming firefighters come through the wind event without a serious blow-up.
Fire officials lifted several evacuation orders and warnings this week, but 16,000 people are still under mandatory evacuation orders, with another 12,000 in voluntary evacuation areas, accordng to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.
Santa Barbara County has a Thomas Fire help line people can call at 805-681-5542 with questions about evacuations, transportation assistance for evacuating, or to talk to a counselor.