Crews save hundreds of homes in Santa Barbara hills in epic Thomas Fire battle

What a difference a day makes.

After Saturday’s wind-driven firestorm and epic firefight, during which crews saved hundreds if not thousands of homes in the hills above Montecito and Santa Barbara, incident managers seemed buoyed Sunday evening by the progress they were making in containing the 2-week-old Thomas Fire.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Rocky Opliger, a member of the incident command team, told Noozhawk. “The difference is just that weather. The difference of a day.”

The wildfire broke out Dec. 4 near Santa Paula and has now blackened 270,500 acres. It was 45 percent contained as of about 8:30 a.m. Monday, making it the third largest in California history. The cause has not yet been determined.

Thomas Fire
Residents survey their burned-out home on Park Hill Lane in Montecito on Sunday, a day after the Thomas Fire roared through the area. Zack Warburg, Noozhawk

Looking forward, firefighters hope to benefit from two days of favorable weather on Monday and Tuesday before another expected sundowner “wind event” Wednesday evening.

They will use that time to continue attacking and cooling the fire’s edges, burn out thick stands of vegetation, and mop up areas that have charred around homes and other structures. The aim is to diminish the risk from the coming weather change.

“If the wind event came tomorrow, we would still have some concern,” Childers said. “By Wednesday, I’m hoping we’ll be able to make it really secure, and then it can blow if it wants to.”

A gusty Saturday leads to massive firefight

The fire exploded at daybreak Saturday as intense downslope winds gusting to 65 mph blasted down the canyons above Montecito and Santa Barbara.

Throughout Saturday, the huge fire made a terrifying run from San Ysidro Canyon through Cold Spring Canyon and Coyote Creek to Gibraltar Road, charring an astounding 11,189 acres in about 12 hours, Opliger said, noting that is a larger area than the Sherpa Fire burned along the Gaviota coast last year.

Remarkably, thanks to the efforts of an army of firefighters and engines that were staged for battle, only about 12 structures were damaged or destroyed by the flames on Saturday out of an estimated 1,300 that were at immediate risk, Opliger said at the daily community meeting on the fire at San Marcos High School near Goleta.

“It was a serious firefight yesterday,” Santa Barbara County fire Battalion Chief Chris Childers said. “The fire wanted to come down that hill and it did.

“So when it came down that hill really fast, right at shift change, we were sending resources in, and everything came together at the perfect time, and we saved a lot of homes. It was a very good day.”

Much to the relief of residents and firefighters alike, Sunday dawned clear and relatively quiet, with little wind and only small amounts of flames and smoke visible.

That allowed firefighters to shift to offense from defense, bringing in a day-long barrage from helicopters dropping water and fire retardant, while crews on the ground “went direct” to cool the fire’s edges and strengthen containment lines.

Gibraltar Road east of Rattlesnake Canyon remained the primary containment target for firefighters.

The flames did spot over the road to the west in a few places Saturday, charring several hundred acres in total, Opliger said. Crews were able to get containment lines around those areas, however.

A spot fire also burned about 150 acres in Parma Park behind Santa Barbara’s Riviera neighborhood, Opliger said, but that also was doused.

Part of what allowed firefighters to be so successful in protecting structures in the face of an unchecked conflagration was an approach called “fire-following,” according to Childers.

“We made a big effort this time,” he said. “We told our crews, instead of camping at these structures right on the edge of the urban interface, we want you to drop back to a refuge area or to a distance to let the fire hit, and then we want you go in there and put it out.

“So the fire would hit, it’s got the brush on both sides of the driveway, and an engine will drive in there and put it out.”

The status of mandatory evacuations has been a prickly topic in the community and at the daily meetings, with the main concern being when people will be allowed to go home. Many have criticized the timing of evacuation orders, viewing some as premature, and their duration in areas that no longer appear threatened by flames.

On Dec. 10, residents were ordered out of a 16-mile stretch north of Highway 192 between the Ventura County line and Mission Canyon in Santa Barbara.

There are as many as 17,000 people under mandatory evacuation orders in Santa Barbara County, and another 30,000 who are in evacuation warning areas, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, who stressed that public safety is the primary reason for ordering evacuations.

Recent news reports have indicated that incident managers have decided no evacuation orders will be dropped until Thursday, after the expected wind event, but Brown said that is not the case.

“To my knowledge, that decision has not been made,” Brown told Noozhawk, “and ultimately it will be made by the fire incident command team, based on an analysis of weather, current fire behavior, and the potential for it to come back in on this front country populated part of Santa Barbara.”

Opliger acknowledged that the expected sundowners on Wednesday are an important factor in deciding whether to allow people to return to their homes.

While some will be allowed back in the next couple of days, he said, “I think the actual affected area, right there by Highway 192, I think you’re looking at Thursday.”

Childers offered a similar assessment.

“I would hope we are getting people back before then,” he said, “but then you hate to bring them back tomorrow and then you have to kick them out again.”

Childers said he expected some of the orders would be lifted Monday and more in the following days, but stopped short of offering any specific timetable.

“Not everyone is going to be waiting until Thursday,” he said.

Firefighters, who now number 8,452, were having success Sunday in other areas of the fire, including the backcountry near Pendola Station on the west flank, in Rose Valley off Highway 33 to the north in Ventura County, and in the Sespe Wildernessarea near Fillmore on the east.

Opliger said he expected the Thomas Fire to eventually overtake the 2003 Cedar Fire — which burned 273,246 acres in San Diego County — to become the largest wildfire in state history.

“I think it will go over 300,000 acres,” he said, noting there are burnouts still planned for the fire.

The plan for Sunday night, Opliger said, was “to mop up, especially where the fire came down right into the structures.”

“We’re going to continue the effort to reduce all the smoke and heat,” he said. “The crews are going to continue building the lines, if it’s doable at nighttime. If not, tomorrow.

“We figure we have about 2½ days before we’re going to get tested again with a potential sundowner. We’re in a much better situation.”

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

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Tribune reporter Nick Wilson contributed to this story.

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