Earlier wildfires may hold key to stopping giant Thomas Fire

It looks increasingly likely that the giant Thomas Fire won’t be stopped in Santa Barbara County until it hits the burn scars from recent conflagrations — the Tea, Jesusita, Rey and Zaca fires.

A day after blackening much of Toro Canyon above Carpinteria — where fire officials had hoped to make a stop — the blaze on Tuesday burned west into Romero Canyon along the southern flank of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

A major flare-up Tuesday evening — a repeat of Monday’s night’s fiery show — made clear that the fire, which grew to 237,500 acres and 25-percent containment by Wednesday morning, isn’t ready to surrender to the army of firefighters brought in to battle it.

Continued extremely low humidity, unpredictable winds and old, dense and desiccated vegetation have all contributed to the fire’s devastating spread and widespread destruction.

As of Tuesday night, the Thomas Fire was close to knocking the 240,000-acre Zaca Fire out of fourth place on California’s list of largest wildfires, taking just over a week to do it, while the 2008 blaze burned for eight weeks to reach that size, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson.

At a community meeting at San Marcos High School on Tuesday evening, Peterson reported that incident commanders have established a fire camp at Lake Cachuma to help cut down on turnaround time for crews fighting the western edge of the fire, which stretches more than 30 miles to the east to the town of Fillmore in Ventura County.

It’s incredible to drive south on Highway 101 for half an hour, to the command post in Ventura, and still see no end to the fire, Peterson said.

Smoky skies have limited the ability to use fixed-wing air tankers and VLAT (very large air tankers) to drop retardant, and the fire has burned past attempted stopping points at Toro Canyon and Romero Canyon, according to Chris Childers, a Santa Barbara County fire battalion chief.

The blaze only grew a few thousand acres overnight Monday into Tuesday, he said, but it was “where we didn’t want it.”

The fire incident management team is now counting on the Thomas Fire run up against burn areas from wildfires in the past 10 years — the Jesusita and Tea fires along the front country, and the Zaca and Rey fires north of the mountains — to help stop the spread of flames.

The younger vegetation in those areas won’t burn as hot, and can extinguish when humidity increases and winds stop, Childers said.

Firefighters were unable to stop the blaze as they had hoped in Toro Canyon Monday night, and watched on Tuesday night as it blew up again and blackened much of Romero Canyon to the west.

The fire is now edging above Montecito, in the hills and canyons north of the more populated areas.

“We’re seeing fire every day that we haven’t seen before,” Childers said.

Both the Tea and Jesusita fires burned to just west of Gibraltar Road, which incident commanders see as a good bet for stopping the Thomas Fire’s westward progression along the front country. They also are counting on East Camino Cielo to serve as a fuel break.

On the north side of the mountains, in the Santa Ynez River drainage, they’ve already seen the fire stall out as it hit the 10-year-old fuel beds from the Zaca Fire, and expect similar results if it moves down past Gibraltar Reservoir to the Rey Fire burn area.

Additionally, they are are using bulldozers and hand crews to reopen several fuel breaks that run from Camino Cielo down to the river.

“We’re winning the battle, but it’s taking longer than I wanted,” Childers said.

An injured firefighter was airlifted from the Toro Canyon area on Tuesday by a helicopter from Ventura County, and taken to the hospital. Details on the firefighter’s injuries and condition were not available.

Evacuation warning zones stretch all the way south to the Pacific Ocean, but fire crews are not worried about holding the fire at Highway 192, Childers said — they’re working to protect the areas above Highway 192.

More than 7,900 fire personnel were assigned to the blaze as of Wednesday morning, perhaps the largest firefighting force ever assigned to a Santa Barbara County blaze.

The incident command team said Wednesday morning that 921 structures had been destroyed and another 200 had been damaged.

Cal Fire said that the destroyed buildings included 709 single-family residences, two multi-unit residential buildings, 18 commercial buildings, two mixed-use buildings and 190 minor structures. Another 164 single-family residences were damaged.

The devastating fire started Dec. 4 near Santa Paula.

Thousands of people have been evacuated as of Tuesday, including areas in the Carpinteria Valley, Montecito and eastern Santa Barbara.

The fire has burned areas of Gobernador Canyon and Toro Canyon and some structures have been lost, according to the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District, but no details were available.

One structure at the top of Toro Canyon was lost, Childers said, and fire officials confirmed that at least five structures and one outbuilding had been destroyed.

Officials had hoped Monday night to hold the blaze at Toro Canyon, but that didn’t happen.

On Tuesday morning, there were about 40-50 fire engines stationed along Romero Canyon Road and Bella Vista Drive for structure protection.

Amber Anderson, a public information officer with the Santa Barbara City Fire Department, told Noozhawk that the goal Tuesday had been to hold the fire at Romero Canyon and have fire crews work right on the edge of the fire.

Carpinteria is the first priority area, and the second is the area burning northeast of Fillmore in Ventura County, Anderson said.

Firefighters now have the benefit of less wind than the early days, she said, but the relative humidity in Montecito is critically low, with almost no water vapor in the air — it was recorded at 1 percent Tuesday.

“It’s been in single digits since Dec. 8, which is kind of historic,” Anderson said. “It’s one reason we’re seeing extensions for some of these Red Flag warnings.”

Firefighters expected down-canyon winds Tuesday morning, and then later shifts to up-canyon winds and back to down-canyon through at least Friday, she said.

“Firefighters are trying to work with that, and keep their head on a swivel to keep ahead of the fire,” Anderson said.

Click here for evacuation area updates in Santa Barbara County.

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Click here for school closure updates.

For Thomas Fire fire response information, check the Santa Barbara County and Ventura County websites.

Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford reported from the scene. is a Santa Barbara-based news website. Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNewsand @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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