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Firefighters ‘Pass the Test’ on Giant Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara County

This story was last updated at 7:44 a.m. Friday.

“I think we passed the test.”

That was the assessment Thursday night from Battalion Chief Chris Childers of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department on the status of the giant Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara County.

The test was a “wind event” overnight Wednesday in the mountains above Montecito and Santa Barbara that had the potential to rekindle the flames that had menaced the community for 11 days.

A Red Flag Fire Weather Warning was in effect until 10 a.m., with forecasters calling for downslope “sundowner” winds potentially gusting up to 50 mph.

The winds did blow through the night, but by morning all the containment lines had held, and fire officials lifted the remaining evacuation orders and warnings for the Santa Barbara County South Coast, allowing some 16,000 people to return home in time for the holidays.

“We’re pretty much in patrol status now,” Childers told Noozhawk. “The whole Santa Barbara side of the fire should have black line (containment) around it tomorrow.”

Containment of the 17-day-old blaze, which has blackened 272,800 acres, grew to 65 percent Thursday night, and was expected to increase further on Friday.

Suppression costs to date have totalled more than $174 million.

Being in patrol status means crews will continue searching out hotspots and keeping an eye out for flare-ups. 

They also will begin repairing bulldozer lines, installing water bars and returning some of the brush to barren areas to reduce erosion, Childers said.

Firefighters have just about completed the containment line near Pendola Station in the Santa Barbara back country.

“A few crews will be pulling a hose there tomorrow, and doing some work for a couple more days,” Childers said.

Crews also were continuing with a large firing operation in Ventura County, near Rose Valley off Highway 33 north of Ojai, although they were hampered Thursday by snow from the passing storm front. Mandatory evacuation orders for that area were also lifted.

Firefighting resources continue to be released from the incident, and the number of personnel assigned to the blaze had dropped to 4,404 on Friday morning from a peak of nearly 9,000.

The blaze is transitioning from unified command, which includes a variety of local, state and federal officials, to a federal Type 1 management team lead by Mark Von Tillow of the U.S. Forest Service.

The Thomas Fire is just 446 acres away from catching the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County, which charred 273,246 acres, and taking over the top spot on the state’s list of all-time largest wildfires.

More than 1,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed by the Thomas Fire, and hundreds more were damaged.

There have been two confirmed fatalities, including a San Diego firefighter. 

Most of the structure damage has been in Ventura County, but at least 16 homes have been destroyed in Santa Barbara County, and there is a Carpinteria community meeting scheduled Friday to give people information about rebuilding and other recovery assistance. 

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.

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