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Tuesday, December 11 , 2018, 8:39 am | Fair 42º


Fanned by Gusty Downslope Winds, Thomas Fire Roars to the West

New evacuations ordered as flames reported in Cold Springs Canyon, along East Mountain Drive, and east of Gibraltar Road


This story was last updated at 7:35 p.m.

Fanned by gusty north winds, the Thomas Fire was challenging firefighters in multiple places on Saturday afternoon, and continuing its march to the west.

It spread to 267,500 acres by Saturday night and was 40-percent contained. 

Efforts by firefighters to hold the fire in San Ysidro Canyon and stop the spread of the giant wildfire were blown away in the early hours on Saturday as winds gusting to 65 mph propelled the flames into populated areas.

The fire moved through Hot Springs Canyon to Cold Springs Canyon, and was burning on Montecito Peak.

County Fire Chief Eric Peterson said Saturday afternoon that the fire made a significant run west and was burning above Westmont College and into Parma Park that afternoon.

It had not passed Gibraltar Road as of 4 p.m. but was heading that direction, he said.

“We knew that what has happened, could happen, and has,” he said.

The Thomas Fire burns west in Santa Barbara County Saturday, as seen looking east from Gibraltar Road. Click to view larger
The Thomas Fire burns west in Santa Barbara County Saturday, as seen looking east from Gibraltar Road.  (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

Fire officials have been worried about these high winds for days, and Santa Barbara County released a slew of new mandatory evacuation orders Saturday morning, in addition to expanding the voluntary evacuation warning areas.

The Thomas Fire did start burning into the Tea Fire burn area Saturday and, as officials hoped, slowed down its growth considerably, Peterson noted as a bit of good news.

Sheriff Bill Brown said his department activated mutual aid requests, so law enforcement officers from within and outside the county have responded to help with mandatory evacuations and patrolling evacuating areas. The California National Guard has also responded, he said.

“We’ve had a challenging day today,” he said, likening Saturday to a “tabletop scenario.”

In addition to the Thomas Fire’s march west and increasing evacuation areas, the South Coast was hit with Highway 101 closures due to rollover accidents( including a crashed gasoline tanker truck near Goleta), the CHP closed Highway 154 indefinitely to increase access for fire equipment, and another vegetation fire started in the Drum Canyon area south of Los Alamos.

The CHP has also shut down many Highway 101 off-ramps in both directions in the Santa Barbara, Montecito and Summerland areas. 

Heavy flames and smoke were visible earlier in the day from Montecito’s Upper Village, and a fleet of fire engines remained in position to protect homes and other structures in Montecito.

The Thomas Fire burns near homes on Mountain Drive Saturday. Click to view larger
The Thomas Fire burns near homes on Mountain Drive Saturday. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Active burning was reported in Cold Springs Canyon, with flames reported on both sides of the 200 block of East Mountain Drive west of the Cold Springs trailhead.

Multiple strike teams of five engines each were on scene in that area for structure protection.

Fire also was charring toward Gibraltar Road, where fire officials previously had established a major fuel break.

There were also incorrect reports that the fire had reached the upper areas of Rattlesnake Canyon.

Flames also were reported near Westmont College, and flare-up was reported east of San Ysidro Canyon, in the area of Park Lane.

"The most dangerous part is you really can’t see where the head of the fire is," said Mike Eliason, a Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman.

A firefighter douses flames from the Thomas Fire Saturday in the Mountain Drive area of Montecito. The blaze, fanned by gusty winds, jumped San Ysidro Canyon Saturday and was burning to the west. Click to view larger
A firefighter douses flames from the Thomas Fire Saturday in the Mountain Drive area of Montecito. The blaze, fanned by gusty winds, jumped San Ysidro Canyon Saturday and was burning to the west. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Wind conditions through the day have been too gusty to allow much use of helicopters in the firefight, Eliason said.

Shortly before 11 a.m., National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Fisher told Noozhawk it appeared the winds had peaked, and had diminished in some areas.

"The winds should slowly back down through the afternoon," Fisher said.

The most recent wind readings included 32 mph, with gusts to 47 mph, on Gibraltar Ridge; 10 mph with gusts to 24 at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden; and 10 mph with gusts to 46 mph in Montecito.

Winds in the city of Santa Barbara were at 5 mph.

There were reports of at least one structure lost Saturday morning, but that could not be immediately confirmed.

New mandatory evacuation orders were issued for the areas north of Foothill Road from Highway 154 east to Mission Canyon Road, and for the area north of Highway 101, south of 192, west of Toro Canyon Road, and east of Summit Road/east of the Country Club.

Heavy burning from the Thomas Fire is visible Saturday behind the Upper Village in Montecito. The blaze jumped San Ysidro Canyon and was buring in Hot Springs and Cold Springs canyons. Click to view larger
Heavy burning from the Thomas Fire is visible Saturday behind the Upper Village in Montecito. The blaze jumped San Ysidro Canyon and was buring in Hot Springs and Cold Springs canyons. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

A new evacuation warning was issued for all areas of Montecito and Santa Barbara south of Highway 101 to the coast, and east of the zoo to San Ysidro Road.

Evacuation warnings also were issued for the area in Santa Barbara from Constance/Alameda Padre Serra/South Salinas Street on the north and east, Highway 101 on the south, and West Mission Street to State Street on the west; for North San Marcos Road to Highway 154 and north of Cathedral Oaks Road to the intersection of Highway 154 and North San Marcos (near top of San Marcos Pass); and for the area south of Highway 192, west of Mission Canyon Road, north of State Street, and east of the Nomad Village/San Vicente Mobile Home Park.

Santa Barbara police spokesman Anthony Wagner said Saturday afternoon that an estimated 20,000 people live within the city's mandatory evacuation areas and another 22,000 live within the voluntary evacuation areas. 

Saturday night, a voluntary evacuation warning was issued for the Painted Cave area, north of Highway 154 and south of East Camino Cielo along Painted Cave Road. 

Click here for Noozhawk's Evacuation Update page and click here for an interactive map from Santa Barbara County.

“This thing is just coming down off the hills,” Capt. David Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department told Noozhawk.

Firefighters has hoped to make a stand in San Ysidro Canyon after carving a containment line up the rugged mountainside, but the winds proved too much.

The flames were moving rapidly toward the huge fuel break that crews have established east of Gibraltar Road.

Gusty conditions were making it difficult for helicopters to operate.

“The smoke is horrific,” Zaniboni said, adding that visibility in Montecito was very poor.

Zaniboni urged anyone still in the mandatory evacuation areas to leave immediately.

Two of the three northbound Highway 101 lanes near Turnpike Road reopened as of 4 p.m. Saturday, after a long closure due to a gasoline tanker truck crash and 5,000-gallon spill onto the roadway and nearby areas.

The CHP also announced that State Route 154 would be closed to through traffic indefinitely, between Santa Barbara and the State Route 246 in the Santa Ynez Valley.

There is a Thomas Fire base camp at Lake Cachuma and there have been daily morning closures to make way for fire equipment. 

Locals can get through the State Route 154 closure with proper identification. 

There are many local road closures in place due to mandatory evacuation areas, and the CHP also closed many Highway 101 off-ramps in the Montecito and Summerland areas Saturday afternoon.

Check back with Noozhawk for updates to this story.

Click here to sign up for Noozhawk’s free breaking news text alerts to your cell phone.

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 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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