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Incident Commanders Eye Big ‘Firing’ Operation to Stop Thomas Fire

Current strategy is to continue direct attack on flames, but crews are preparing for contingency plans for 242,500-acre blaze that is already bigger than the 2007 Zaca Fire

 

This story was last updated at 11:25 a.m. Thursday.

Firefighters battling the giant Thomas Fire are continuing to make a direct attack on the flames with air support and ground crews, but their back-up and contingency plans could mean a lot more flames and smoke in the mountains behind the Santa Barbara County South Coast in coming days. 

Air tankers and helicopters were able to put in a lot of hours fighting the fire on Wednesday, according to Battalion Chris Childers of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department

"We had a very good day today," Childers said at a community meeting Wednesday afternoon.

As of Thursday morning, the blaze had blackened 242,500 acres and was 30 percent contained.

That passes the 240,207-acre Zaca Fire that burned Santa Barbara County in 2007, and the Thomas Fire is now the fourth-largest wildfire in California history with no signs of stopping

Incident commanders said Wednesday night that the primary plan is to keep fighting the fire directly, with firefighters and retardant drops right on the fire's edge to hold it where it is. 

Firefighters stretch hose lines along a fuel break below Camino Cielo near Gibraltar Road Wednesday afternoon for use during a possible firing operation in coming days. Click to view larger
Firefighters stretch hose lines along a fuel break below Camino Cielo near Gibraltar Road Wednesday afternoon for use during a possible firing operation in coming days. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

There is now a retardant station at the Lake Cachuma base camp, so helicopters and other crews can access the western edge of the fire more quickly. 

The secondary plan is to let the fire keep progressing west while holding the bottom edge behind the homes in the foothills, and allowing flames to run into previous burn areas where the fuels are younger and hopefully will slow down the progress.

Finally, incident commanders are preparing for a contingency plan that involves a massive firing operation — burning vegetation purposefully in an attempt to control the direction of the blaze and remove potential fuel from its path.

An operation of that sort likely would start east of Gibraltar Road and extend to the existing fire front west of Romero Canyon — a huge area to burn and one that would put a lot of smoke and flames above populated areas of Montecito and Santa Barbara.

Crews spent the day Wednesday carving out wide fuel breaks with bulldozers and hand crews, while air tankers and helicopters laid down swaths of retardant.

Firefighters also have been placing thousands of feet of hose line that would allow them to cool the edges of the firing area. 

The strategy, as fire officials have outlined repeatedly in previous days, is to connect the Thomas Fire to recent "burn scars," including the Zaca, Tea and Jesusita fires, to slow or stop its progress. 

A major firing operation could happen as early as Thursday morning, "if it really went bad tonight," Childers said Wednesday. 

Changing weather, including the chance of sundowner winds on Friday, will contribute to the fire behavior and incident command's plan.  

Map showing the Thomas Fire in relation to other recent wildfires in Santa Barbara County, and including boundaries of possible firing operation. Click to view larger
Map showing the Thomas Fire in relation to other recent wildfires in Santa Barbara County, and including boundaries of possible firing operation. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk)

"If it looks like it's going to force our hand, that's when we'd make our decision," Childers said. 

Santa Barbara has been sitting under a cloud of smoke and an air-quality warning for a week now, and someone at the latest community meeting asked why firefighters aren't wearing masks to protect against air pollution and the smoke. 

"No one ever said we were geniuses, OK?" Childers said, before elaborating that firefighters have been told they should wear protection, but the masks restrict breathing and wildfire personnel are doing very demanding work. 

"They are working physically hard, and they need all the oxygen they can get," Childers said. "That's the kind of dedication these guys have." 

He noted that firefighters battling structure fires are required to wear breathing apparatus because of potential toxins. 

On Wednesday, the battle against the massive Thomas Fire's western front took place in the canyons above Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito, and in the upper Santa Ynez River drainage.

Fire officials reduced evacuation orders and warnings in the eastern Carpinteria Valley, including downgrading the Rincon Point-area evacuation order to a warning zone. 

Click here for evacuation area updates in Santa Barbara County. 

Officials also asked local residents to conserve energy to ease the load on Southern California Edison power lines; to wait before cleaning up ash and avoid using leaf blowers; and to use Highway 101 instead of Highway 154, which will have morning closures in place to give access to fire equipment staged at Lake Cachuma. 

A firing operation west of Toro Canyon creates a lot of flames and smoke Wednesday afternoon. Firefighters took advantage of calm winds to burn off vegetation. Click to view larger
A firing operation west of Toro Canyon creates a lot of flames and smoke Wednesday afternoon. Firefighters took advantage of calm winds to burn off vegetation. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

The Thomas Fire knocked the 240,000-acre Zaca Fire out of fourth place on California's list of largest wildfires, taking just over a week to do it, while the 2008 blaze burned for eight weeks to reach that size, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson. 

Both the Tea and Jesusita fires burned to just west of Gibraltar Road, which incident commanders see as a good bet for stopping the Thomas Fire's westward progression along the front country. They also are counting on East Camino Cielo to serve as a fuel break.

On the north side of the mountains, in the Santa Ynez River drainage, they've already seen the fire stall out as it hit the 10-year-old fuel beds from the Zaca Fire, and expect similar results if it moves down past Gibraltar Reservoir to the Rey Fire burn area.

More than 8,100 fire personnel were assigned to the blaze as of Wednesday, perhaps the largest firefighting force ever assigned to a Santa Barbara County blaze.

The incident command team said Thursday that 970 structures have been destroyed and 18,000 are threatened. From past numbers, CalFire has said at least 709 of the destroyed buildings were single-family homes. 

Five engines and two bulldozers from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department were clearing a fire break and laying 10,000 feet of hose across a canyon from atop Camino Cielo down to Gibraltar Road to make a stand should the fire move that direction. Click to view larger
Five engines and two bulldozers from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department were clearing a fire break and laying 10,000 feet of hose across a canyon from atop Camino Cielo down to Gibraltar Road to make a stand should the fire move that direction. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

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Click here for current N-95 mask distribution sites and air quality information.

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

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton contributed to this story.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli 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 hand crew prepares to hit the fire lines Wednesday. Click to view larger
A hand crew prepares to hit the fire lines Wednesday. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)
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