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Local News

Monday Night Battle Against Thomas Fire Focused on Toro and Romero Canyons

With wind shifting to the north, flames present greater threat to homes in Carpinteria and communities to the west; acreage burned rises to 234,200

 
Flames burn in the Toro Canyon area above Carpinteria Monday night. Click to view larger
Flames burn in the Toro Canyon area above Carpinteria Monday night.  (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

This story was last updated at 9:59 a.m.

Heading into Monday night, fire officials were hopeful that Toro Canyon was where they could make a definitive stand against the giant Thomas Fire, which has ravaged Ventura and Santa Barbara counties for more than a week.

The plan was to hold the line in the scenic canyon overlooking Carpinteria, and keep the flames from moving west and threatening Summerland, Montecito and Santa Barbara.

“Toro Canyon is our big effort right now,” Chris Childers, Santa Barbara County Fire Department battalion chief, told Noozhawk at a community meeting Monday afternoon. “That’s where I’m concentrating...Right now we’ve got fire engines on the road. We’ve got crews ready to cut (containment) line up the hill.”

For most of the day, the blaze that now totals 231,700 acres and is 20-percent contained had been in a “backing” mode, moving slowly downhill and being pushed back by mild, up-slope winds.

By Tuesday morning, the acreage burned had risen 2,500 to 234,200.

After briefing residents at the community meeting, Childres expressed a bit of optimism that the fire's devastating march could be slowed or halted, while acknowledging that there were no guarantees.

But an hour after the meeting ended, the winds shifted to the north, and by 7 p.m., large flames were consuming the chaparral in Romero Canyon, about a mile below East Camino Cielo, with some spotting of fire to the west side of the canyon.

It appeared that the Thomas Fire was not ready to be stopped.

A air tanker makes a drop of fire retardant Monday afternoon on the Thomas Fire burning near Carpinteria. Click to view larger
A air tanker makes a drop of fire retardant Monday afternoon on the Thomas Fire burning near Carpinteria. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Crews scrambled to battle the flames and protect homes, while a night-flying helicopter capable of making water drops after dark was dispatched, and a second similar aircraft was requested.

Santa Barbara County's Copter 308 also was dispatched to the scene.

Dramatic flames were clearly visible from Santa Barbara and throughout the Carpinteria Valley, raising alarm for residents in the area.

However, an email message from the county's Office of Emergency Services sent at 7:22 p.m. downplayed the importance of the visible, dramatic flames:

"The flare-ups seen to the east of downtown Santa Barbara and the Riviera are being monitored and do not currently pose a threat. The fire is feeding on unburned fuels within the current parameter. Expect to see similar conditions throughout the night," the county wrote.

Flames from the Thomas Fire burn brightly Monday night in the upper Toro Canyon area. Click to view larger
Flames from the Thomas Fire burn brightly Monday night in the upper Toro Canyon area. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

"Firefighters anticipate this fire behavior. Fire is more visible at night and appears closer than it is. Firefighters continue to remain in place providing structure defense in the affected area."

"They had quite a bit of fire activity at the top of the canyons," Santa Barbara County Fire Department Capt. Dave Zaniboni told Noozhawk Tuesday morning.

It was "possible" some home were lost, in the area, Zaniboni said, but that had not been confirmed.

And he noted that firefighters positioned in the canyon were able to save quite a few structures.

He added that there was a firing operation in Santa Monica Canyon that put up quite a bit of flames and smoke.

Flames burn behind a home in the Toro Canyon area of Carpinteria. Click to view larger
Flames burn behind a home in the Toro Canyon area of Carpinteria. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

If fire crews are unable to hold the line in the area of Toro and Romero canyons, they have identified areas to the west to make similar stands.

According to Childers, if the flames move west across the foothills, they eventually will reach the areas burned by the 2008 Tea Fire and the 2009 Jesusita Fire. The much younger vegetation in those areas should give firefighters a better chance of containing the blaze, he said.

The last contingency plan, Childers said, is a major fuel break that leads from Windy Gap off Highway 154 up to Camino Cielo. Crews are at work expanding that line, which has been effective in other major wildfires, Childers said. 

In the meantime, dozens of strike teams — each with five fire engines — are spread throughout the foothill neighborhoods over to Mission Canyon to provide structure protection.

Flames from the Thomas Fire provide an eerie backdrop for Montecito’s Upper Village. Click to view larger
Flames from the Thomas Fire provide an eerie backdrop for Montecito’s Upper Village. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

While the front country is consuming most of the attention and firefighting resources, the Thomas Fire continues to burn in the Santa Ynez River drainage on the north side of the mountains.

It ripped through the area of Jameson Lake over the weekend, destroying a caretaker's cabin, and was burning west and north on Monday.

Childers said crews hope to halt the flames in the Juncal area, below Jameson Lake, where the Romero-Camuesa Road makes a big loop and heads west.

Failing that, Childers said, firefighters would fall back to the Alder fuel break, then the Arroyo Burro fuel break and road, and finally the Fremont fuel break, which drops down to Paradise Road about 3 miles from Highway 154.

Eventually the fire would run into the burn areas from the 2007 Zaca Fire and last year's Rey Fire, where much younger vegetation should slow the spread of flames and allow firefighters to gain containment.

Heavy flames burn in a canyon above Carpinteria Monday night. Click to view larger
Heavy flames burn in a canyon above Carpinteria Monday night. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

Childers confirmed that crews have placed a protective foil-like wrap around two structures in the area: the Pendola Station and the caretaker's residence at Gibraltar Reservoir downstream.

While expressing hope that the tide would turn on the Thomas Fire Monday night, Childers was philosophical.

"We have favorable weather conditions, which are going to allow us to take an aggressive attack here, but if we don’t pull it off, it’s not for lack of trying," he said.

Click here for the latest evacuation orders and notices for Santa Barbara County.

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Click here for the latest school closures.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

A Thomas Fire progression map showing burn areas each day, released Tuesday morning. Click to view larger
A Thomas Fire progression map showing burn areas each day, released Tuesday morning. (Santa Barbara County photo)
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