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Volatile Winds Whip Thomas Fire Into Burning Frenzy, Putting Firefighters to a Severe Test

Despite challenging day on frontlines, officials express relief toll wasn't higher; 269,000-acre blaze reaches 40% containment as it continues march above Montecito

 

This story was last updated at 8:59 a.m. Sunday.

At the end of what clearly was a difficult day for firefighters tasked with halting the monstrous Thomas Fire raging in the mountains above Montecito and Santa Barbara, there seemed to be a consensus Saturday night that things could have been a lot worse.

“There were no injuries and fairly minimal structural impacts,” Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson told those gathered for the daily afternoon community meeting on the wildfire at San Marcos High School near Goleta.

Crews were tested on multiple fronts, starting in the early morning hours as gusty north winds pushed the flames over containment lines and into populated foothill areas of Montecito.

Much of the South Coast was witness to the intensity of the fire — estimated at 269,000 acres and 40-percent contained Sunday morning — as flames and smoke were highly visible throughout the day.

Perimiter map of the Thomas Fire. Click to view larger
Perimiter map of the Thomas Fire.

Incident commanders knew they were in for a challenge, but had hoped to corral the nearly 2-week-old fire in San Ysidro Canyon after crews on Friday were able to build a containment line by hand up to the ridge-top of East Camino Cielo.

But the wind — with gusts measuring 65 mph in Montecito and many upslope locations — quickly blew away that hope.

The blustery conditions came up earlier than expected shortly after dawn, driving the flames west and threatening Westmont College and foothills homes in the area of East Mountain Drive.

As the day continued, the fire became established in Cold Spring Canyon, burning its way up to — and over — Camino Cielo in spots.

Throughout the day, the fire made runs — into the west fork of Cold Spring Canyon, on the northwest flank toward Gibraltar Road, along East Camino Cielo and down out of San Ysidro Canyon.

The western flank of the Thomas Fire burns fiercely Saturday afternoon near a fuel break in the Gibraltar Road area above Santa Barbara. Click to view larger
The western flank of the Thomas Fire burns fiercely Saturday afternoon near a fuel break in the Gibraltar Road area above Santa Barbara. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

As darkness fell, incident commanders seemed pleased with the forecast for Saturday night and Sunday morning, which called for lighter winds diminishing by noon Sunday.

Heading into early next week, firefighters are expecting a return of santa ana winds — light and from the east.

That shift could cause some problems for firefighters in the Gibraltar Road area on the fire’s west flank, according to Mark Von Tillow, a member of the Incident Management Team, “but it also could slow it down for us.”

Crews remained busy in other sectors of the far-flung fire, including in Ventura County, in the Rose Valley area off Highway 33 and north of Fillmore, near the Sespe Wilderness, on the east end.

The Thomas Fire is now the third largest in California history, behind the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County that blackened 273,246 acres and the 2012 Rush Fire in Lassen County that charred 271,911 acres.

The blaze has destroyed more than 1,000 structures and damaged 229 others.

As of Sunday morning, there were 8,529 personnel assigned to the fire, the largest firefighting force ever assembled in California.

The Thomas Fire burns Saturday afternoon below East Camino Cielo and east of Gibraltar Road. Click to view larger
The Thomas Fire burns Saturday afternoon below East Camino Cielo and east of Gibraltar Road. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Also deployed were 972 fire engines, 166 hand crews, 94 water tenders, 77 bulldozers, 34 helicopters and various air tankers.

Two people have died, including a firefighter from San Diego County, and there have been several injuries reported.

Suppression costs to date have totaled nearly $117 million.

The cause of the fire, which ignited Dec. 4 near Santa Paula, remains under investigation.

Progression map of the Thomas Fire. Click to view larger
Progression map of the Thomas Fire.

The fire’s ultimate toll no doubt will be huge, but on Saturday, at least, fire managers were reaping the benefit of time.

“With this big fire front, we’ve had the benefit of a long time to prepare for it,” Peterson told Noozhawk. “Not only do we have all these people in here and staged, but they’ve had an opportunity to make themselves familiar with the territory.

“And that’s unforgiving territory up there, and this is not a fire that is conducive to control. It doesn’t want to be controlled.

“The fact that all those firefighters have been up there over the last couple, three days has allowed them to get way back in there confidently, even in the face of a pretty challenging situation.”

A column of smoke from the Thomas Fire rises behind a ridge near the Glass Factory shooting area on Gibraltar Road. Click to view larger
A column of smoke from the Thomas Fire rises behind a ridge near the Glass Factory shooting area on Gibraltar Road. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

As the fire advanced throughout the day, evacuation orders and warnings were expanded, with some 16,000 people directed to leave their homes and another 34,000 told to be ready to do so at a moment’s notice.

There have been several homes damaged and destroyed by the fire in Santa Barbara County, but officials said Saturday night they do not yet have a tally.

Gibraltar Road remains a figurative line in the sand for firefighters in their effort to stop the westward march of the flames, and as of Saturday night, the fire had not burned across it, Von Tillow said.

“We’re still going to put the effort into Gibraltar Road right now,” he said. “We’re not going to give it up unless we absolutely have to.”

If the fire were to move west of Gibraltar, that would put it into the Rattlesnake Canyon and Mission Canyon drainages, both of which were ravaged by earlier wildfires — the 2008 Tea Fire and the 2009 Jesusita Fire.

The advantage of that is the fire would be burning through much younger and less-dense vegetation, but the downside is exposing many more residential areas to the flames.

The next big stopping point for the fire would be the Windy Gap fuel break near Highway 154, which crews have spent days expanding and reinforcing.

Due to the high winds, firefighters were able to make only limited use Saturday of fixed-wing tankers and helicopters, but they are hopeful that the weather will improve Sunday to allow better use of those crucial firefighting tools.

A “Super-Scooper” tanker makes a water drop Saturday afternoon on the Thomas Fire near Gibraltar Road. Click to view larger
A “Super-Scooper” tanker makes a water drop Saturday afternoon on the Thomas Fire near Gibraltar Road. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

Flames remained active Saturday night in the area of Coyote Creek near Parma Park above Sycamore Canyon, but they did not appear to be making any big runs.

Despite a disappointing day, Peterson sounded philosophical when asked about the status of the fire.

“I feel like we’re as prepared as we can possibly be for this situation,” he said. “It’s extremely challenging. I would have liked it a whole lot better if this wind event didn’t happen or if it happened, we were able to hold.

“But if you’re going to have a fire of this magnitude in this county, the fact that we have 400 fire trucks and this great management team working here. It’s kind of the best-case scenario if you’re going to have the third biggest fire in history in your backyard.”

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

— This story includes reporting at the scene from Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford. 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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