After menacing Ventura County for six days, the 155,000-acre Thomas Fire churned into Santa Barbara County on Saturday, threatening South Coast communities.
As of Saturday night, the fire had advanced westward to the area of Divide Peak, in the backcountry north of the Santa Ynez Mountains ridge, just inside the county line and about 6-7 miles north of Carpinteria.
With the blaze now established in some of the drainages above Carpinteria, authorities are concerned that a shift in the winds — blowing to the south — could propel the flames over the ridge and down into populated areas.
“We realize the significant potential for it to come back down into Carpinteria, Montecito or even Santa Barbara city,” Deputy Incident Commander Dave Russell told Noozhawk.
At about 1:30 a.m., mandatory evacuations were ordered for the Shepard Mesa, Gobernador Canyon and Stanley Park neighborhoods. The mandatory evacuation order was for the area north of Highway 192 and east of Casitas Pass Road.
Guarding against that potential are some 50 fire engines that have been positioned in Carpinteria, according to Mark Brown, operations section chief for the fire. Backing them up are strike teams of engines that can be moved in as needed.
Weather remained a key factor Saturday night, with a Red Flag fire-danger warning in effect for Santa Barbara County’s mountain areas until 9 a.m. Sunday.
The forecast was calling for a “increasing Santa Ana wind event,” according to fire meteorologist Rich Thompson. Although the strongest gusts were expected east of the Highway 33 corridor, winds of 25-35 mph were forecast on the western flank.
Winds were expected to diminish Sunday and shift to an onshore flow.
Daytime relative humidity was forecast to be very low — 3 to 10 percent — with very poor overnight recovery.
Another challenge facing firefighters is the age of the vegetation in and around Divide Peak. That area last burned in 1985 during the Wheeler Fire, and for some of the terrain farther west, there is no record of wildfire.
Older fuels increase fire behavior and also hinder crews trying to carve out containment lines, said fire behavior specialist Tim Chavez.
Officials advised that flames from the fire would be visible along the South Coast on Saturday night, and urged residents to stay alert for changing conditions, and be prepared to evacuate if ordered to.
Gov. Jerry Brown traveled to Ventura County on Saturday to get a first-hand look at the Thomas Fire devastation, and emphasized the state’s commitment to helping battle the blaze that remained at 15-percent contained as of Saturday night.
“It is a horror, and it is a horror we want to minimize.” Brown said at a press conference held after he was given a tour of various areas of the fire.
The governor’s visit came as the fire continued to burn fiercely on several fronts, including north of Highway 150 near Lake Casitas, in the Rose Valley area above Highway 33 north of Ojai, and in the Sespe Wilderness area north of Fillmore.
It also coincided with the news, released at about 3 p.m., that the blaze had burned into Santa Barbara County.
A fleet of aircraft — including at least two Very Large Air Tankers, or VLATs — continued to pound the fire with drops of retardant and water, while bulldozers and hand crews on the ground worked to construct primary and contingency containment lines.
Several “firing” or “backfire” operations also were mounted — to burn off the vegetation and slow the progress of the flames.
Some 4,400 personnel are assigned to the blaze, which thus far has rolled up an estimated $25 million in suppression costs, and forced the evacuation of more than 88,000 people.
On Saturday morning, residents were allowed back into the Shepherd Mesa and Gobernador Canyon areas at the east end of the Carpinteria Valley after the mandatory evacuation order for the area was changed to a voluntary evacuation.
All areas south of Highway 192, including the city of Carpinteria, are no longer under any evacuation status, officials said.
A voluntary evacuation, or warning, area has been expanded west, and now stretches from north of Highway 192 to East Camino Cielo, east of Toro Canyon Road to the county line.
The Rincon Point area remains in a mandatory evacuation order, officials said.
Also, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department issued new mandatory evacuation orders Saturday for the area from Rancho Matilija west to Lake Casitas. This includes Highway 150, (Casitas Pass Road) west to the Santa Barbara County line.
Late Saturday afternoon, Los Padres National Forest officials announced the closure of the Ojai, Santa Barbara and Mt. Pinos ranger districts.
“We are experiencing unprecedented conditions and fire behavior for this time of year,” District Ranger Pancho Smith said. “Our top priority is the safety of the public, adjacent communities, and our firefighters.”
The boundary of the closure area begins at the intersection of Highway 154 and the boundary of the forest, just north of East Camino Cielo Road, then continues northeast along the boundary of the San Rafael and Dick Smith Wilderness Areas. The closure then continues east, south and west along the forest boundary back to the starting point.
Forest Service law enforcement officers will strictly enforce the closure order, which carries a penalty of $5,000 and/or six months in jail.
Some Schools Closed, Other to Reopen
The Santa Barbara County Schools Office announced that the Santa Barbara Unified School District, the Goleta Union School District, the Hope School District, Peabody Charter School, Adelante Charter School, and Santa Barbara Charter School plan to resume classes on Tuesday.
The Carpinteria Unified School District plans to resume classes on Wednesday.
The Cold Spring and Montecito Union schools districts plan to resume classes on Monday.
The Santa Barbara City College campus was expected to be closed Sunday and Monday.
Due to continued unhealthy air conditions resulting from the Thomas Fire, free N-95 masks will be distributed as part of a coordinated effort of the Santa Barbara Medical Reserve Corps, the city of Carpinteria CERT, and Direct Relief International.
The sites that will distribute on Sunday, Dec. 10, include:
» Costco in the Camino Real Marketplace (7095 Market Place Drive, Goleta), 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
» Franklin Community Center (1136 E.Montecito St., Santa Barbara), 10 a.m. to noon.
» Albertson’s in Carpinteria (1018 Casitas Pass Road, Carpinteria), 10 a.m. to 42 p.m.
» Santa Barbara Public Library, 40 E. Anapamu St., 1 to 5 p.m.