Racing to get ahead of a worrisome weather forecast, firefighters Thursday night were continuing their multipronged attack on the Thomas Fire in the canyons behind Montecito, even as they mourned the death of a fellow firefighter who was fatally injured earlier in the day.
San Diego Fire Engineer Cory Iverson, 32, was killed in the line of duty, reportedly in the Fillmore area of the 10-day-old fire, which now measures 60 miles long by 40 miles wide, according to the Ventura County Fire Department.
Iverson, who was part of a five-engine strike team, had worked for CalFire since 2009, and is survived his pregnant wife, Ashley, and their 2-year-old daughter. A GoFundMe account has been set up for Iverson’s family.
CalFire officials did not release any information about the circumstances of Iverson’s death, but said an accident-review team will investigate.
The Thomas Fire grew to 252,500 acres and was 35 percent contained as of Friday morning, and incident commanders were making a concerted effort in San Ysidro Canyon to stop the westward progress of the flames across the southern face of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
The fire has moved into the canyon, where rugged terrain and dense chaparral are making construction of containment lines difficult, Santa Barbara County Fire Battalion Chief Chris Childers told Noozhawk.
Thousands of firefighters on the ground, hundreds of fire engines, dozens of bulldozers and a fleet of aircraft are being used to attack the flames and protect homes and other structures.
“They’re continuing to work,” Childers said of the effort in San Ysidro Canyon. “It’s a cliff. I don’t know how we’re going to get a line that’s going to hold, but they’re cutting it. And if we can get into the Edison (fire) road, and if they can mop it and hold it, then that’s a good sign.”
While that’s the goal, it seems more likely, based on the terrain and the expected weather, that the blaze will continue its march to the west, with crews doing everything they can to prevent damage to structures below.
“If it beats us here (in San Ysidro), then we have to back up and try again,” Childers said. “We’re still going to try to go direct. As long as we’re getting some success with that, and we’re not getting people hurt on that hill, then we’ll keep trying.”
Complicating that plan is the expected weather the next few days. The forecast for Thursday night was for conditions on the fire lines similar to the Wednesday night, which saw a few flare-ups, but no big runs by the fire.
The outlook is more troubling Friday night into Sunday, when north to northeast winds with gusts to 35 mph are possible, along with continued very low humidity, according to Kathy Hoxsie, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
“As we continue to progress with this direct (attack), if we can get it pulled off or at least stall it enough that we can get ahead of it and stay ahead of it, and survive this weather event, by next week we could have better weather and cooler weather for us,” Childers said.
Monday through Wednesday should see improved weather conditions, Hoxsie said, but the prospect of Santa Ana winds returns again late in the week.
Crews had some success Thursday north of the mountains, where the fire was burning in the upper Santa Ynez River drainage, Childers said, adding that a firing operation was conducted in the area of the Pendola Station.
“We’re going to hopefully have that backcountry handled into the Zaca Fire (burn scar), but there’s still work to do,” Childers said. “So if we can get the backcountry sealed, then we’re just in the front country.”
There are now more than 8,300 personnel assigned to the fire, as well as 1,108 fire engines, 153 hand crews, 80 bulldozers, 61 water tenders and 32 helicopters. Several fixed-wing tankers also have been used to lay down fire retardant.
As of Friday morning, the fire has destroyed 723 single-family homes and 18 commercial buildings and damaged hundreds of other buildings, almost entirely in Ventura County, according to CalFire.
Officials said Thursday that 10 structures have been destroyed in Santa Barbara County, but did not offer details.
Iverson’s death is the second confirmed fatality in the fire, after the body of Virginia Pesola, 70, of Santa Paula was found at the site of a vehicle crash on Wheeler Canyon Road in Ventura County on Dec. 4, the night the fire broke out.
That area was under mandatory evacuation at the time, and officials have said the accident occurred while Pesola was fleeing the flames.
During the afternoon, a “firing” operation also was conducted behind the Bella Vista Treatment Plant above Montecito, produce a large amount of flames and smoke.
That operation was not the same as the large-scale burn operation officials are considering as a contingency plan, to coax the blaze toward recent burn areas in an attempt to slow it down or stop the growth.
The Thomas Fire has passed the 240,207-acre Zaca Fire that burned Santa Barbara County in 2007, and is now the fourth-largest wildfire in California history, with no signs of stopping.
Mandatory evacuation orders were unchanged Thursday, but Childers said fire officials expect to allow people back into the two eastern zones — north of Highway 192 to Camino Cielo, from Casitas Pass Road to the Ventura County line — in the near future.
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