Fires

Thomas Fire explodes to 230,500 acres — now 5th largest in California history

Dramatic, close-up footage of Southern California wildfire battle

Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, December 10, 2017. Crews with help from water-dropping aircraft saved several homes as unpredictable gusts sent the blaze churning deeper into foothill area
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Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, December 10, 2017. Crews with help from water-dropping aircraft saved several homes as unpredictable gusts sent the blaze churning deeper into foothill area

With the end nowhere in sight, the Thomas Fire now burning in Santa Barbara County has secured its place in the annals of California wildfires.

The blaze that began nearly a week ago near Santa Paula had blackened an estimated 230,500 acres — nearly 360 square miles — by Monday morning, making it the fifth largest fire in state history.

It was 15 percent contained on Monday morning.

More information about road closures and evacuations can be found at readyventuracounty.org.

Pushed by strong Santa Ana winds and aided by steep and unforgiving terrain, the fire grew by an astonishing 55,000 acres Sunday, according to Chris Childers, a battalion chief with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department and a member of the Thomas Fire incident management team.

Childers was among several public officials who spoke about the fire Sunday afternoon during a community meeting at San Marcos High School near Goleta.

“We had serious growth last night and today,” he told those assembled in the school auditorium.

Childers confirmed that some structures were lost Sunday in the Shepard Mesa and Gobernador Canyon areas, but did not have details.

The meeting came at the end of a day that saw the out-of-control wildfire make a strong push into Santa Barbara County on two fronts — in the foothills of the eastern Carpinteria Valley and in the rugged backcountry on the north side of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

thomas fire map
A map of the fire perimeter on Monday, December 11, 2017. Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Authorities had to scramble in the early morning hours to evacuate the Shepard Mesa, Gobernador Canyon and Stanley Park neighborhoods as flames surged out of the Highway 150 corridor from the east.

As Sunday progressed, mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders were issued for areas to the west; by nightfall, everyone living north of Highway 192 and east of Highway 154 — including half of Montecito and parts of Santa Barbara — was under either a mandatory or voluntary evacuation order.

Of greatest concern, Childers said, is the northwest flank of the blaze, burning in the Santa Barbara backcountry.

Although that portion of the fire is several miles from populated areas, it could prove disastrous if strong north winds develop and push the flames south over the ridge into Montecito, Santa Barbara and Goleta.

Some of the chaparral in that area is many decades old, having not burned since the 1932 Matilija Fire, which blackened 220,000 acres. That makes it susceptible to intense burning.

Fire behavior analyst Brendan Ripley, a captain with the Ventura County Fire Department, explained that much of that vegetation is thick, dry, dead material that is primed for combustion. In addition, he said, years of droughts have left moisture levels in the vegetation dangerously low.

The Thomas Fire has reached Santa Barbara County and the smoke plume spread over San Luis Obispo County on Sunday, December 10, 2017. Here's a look at the skies over Pismo Beach, Morro Bay and elsewhere.

Add to that a forecast calling for hot, dry and windy weather through the coming week, and the potential exists for the Thomas Fire to continue burning indefinitely.

The fire ignited the night of Dec. 4 near Santa Paula, about 40 miles east of Santa Barbara. The cause has not yet been determined.

Saturday night, the fire roared out of the Matilija Canyon drainage and down toward Jamison Lake and the Juncal area. The entire canyon was charred, and the caretaker’s cabin was destroyed.

“That’s a big area,” Childers said. “The fire moved about six miles last night and today. If it did that again, it would be threatening Highway 154. We’re hoping to stop it beforehand.”

Firefighters have multiple strategies for accomplishing that goal, he said.

They include building containment and contingency lines in the front country, providing a heavy presence of firefighters for structure protection in urban areas, re-establishing and strengthening existing fire breaks, and guiding the flames toward the footprints of recent fires — such as last year’s Rey Fire — where the fuel loads are much smaller.

Officials made clear that regardless of what else is done, making significant progress on the fire will require a change in the weather, something not expected until at least the end of the week, according to Ripley.

To date, the Thomas Fire has destroyed at least 771 structures and damaged another 184, although officials have noted that damage assessments are not complete. A 70-year-old Santa Paula woman died in a car crash while fleeing the flames the night of Dec. 4.

Nearly 5,800 personnel are assigned to the blaze, including 762 engines, 103 hand crews, 60 bulldozers, 41 water tenders and 30 helicopters.

Some 18,000 structures remain threatened and suppression costs to date have totaled nearly $34 million. Sunday night, containment was said to be just 10 percent.

Mandatory evacuation orders are in effect for the area from Mission Canyon Road to the Ventura County line, between Highway 192 and East Camino Cielo.

Voluntary evacuation warnings are in effect for the area from Mission Canyon Road to Highway 154, between Highway 192 and East Camino Cielo.

Click here for an updated map of evacuation areas in Santa Barbara County.

A firefighter suffered a broken leg Sunday while battling the blaze in Carpinteria, and was taken by American Medical Response ambulance to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

His name and details on his condition were not available.

Most Santa Barbara County schools canceled classes for at least Monday, and Westmont College closed its campus in the Montecito foothills since it was in the mandatory evacuation zone Sunday night.

The threat of the growing Thomas Fire and the continuing unhealthy air quality for Santa Barbara County also caused many services and businesses to close their doors.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court officials said jurors scheduled to report for duty in downtown Santa Barbara on Monday will have their service continued to another date, while jurors in Santa Maria should report for duty if directed to do so.

Jury trials will not go forward in Santa Barbara courtrooms Monday, but other criminal proceedings were on, according to the county. Lompoc, Santa Maria and juvenile court will be open and operating Monday, officials said.

Santa Barbara County also announced that trash pickup would continue for residential customers this week, but green waste and recyclables will not be collected in Goleta, Santa Barbara and South Coast unincorporated areas of Montecito, Mission Canyon, Isla Vista and the eastern Goleta Valley. Commercial solid waste service will continue as usual.

Noozhawk.com is a Santa Barbara-based news website. Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at tbolton@noozhawk.com and staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at bholland@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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