Last updated at 7:10 p.m.
With the end nowhere in sight, the Thomas Fire now burning in Santa Barbara County has secured its place in the annals of California wildfires.
The blaze that began nearly a week ago near Santa Paula had blackened an estimated 231,700 acres — more than 360 square miles — by Monday night, making it the fifth largest fire in state history.
CalFire said Monday morning that 644 single-family residences had been destroyed and another 167 have been damaged. Twelve commercial structures have been destroyed, and about 160 minor structures have been destroyed or damaged.
As of Monday night, the fire had burned 231,700 acres and was 20-percent contained, according to CalFire. More than 18,000 structures were threatened.
Pushed by strong Santa Ana winds and aided by steep and unforgiving terrain, the fire grew by an astonishing 55,000 acres Sunday, according to Chris Childers, a battalion chief with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department and a member of the Thomas Fire incident management team.
Childers was among several public officials who spoke about the fire Sunday afternoon during a community meeting at San Marcos High School near Goleta.
“We had serious growth last night and today,” he told those assembled in the school auditorium.
Childers confirmed that some structures were lost Sunday in the Shepard Mesa and Gobernador Canyon areas, but did not have details.
Sunday’s community meeting came at the end of a day that saw the out-of-control wildfire make a strong push into Santa Barbara County on two fronts — in the foothills of the eastern Carpinteria Valley and in the rugged backcountry on the north side of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Authorities had to scramble in the early morning hours to evacuate the Shepard Mesa, Gobernador Canyon and Stanley Park neighborhoods as flames surged out of the Highway 150 corridor from the east.
|Cedar||Oct. 2003||273,246||San Diego|
|Zaca||July 2007||240,207||Santa Barbara|
|Witch||Oct. 2007||197,990||San Diego|
|Klamath Complex||June 2008||192,038||Siskiyou|
|Marble Cone||July 1977||177,866||Monterey|
|Laguna||Sept. 1970||175,425||San Diego|
As the day progressed, mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders were issued for areas to the west; by nightfall, everyone living north of Highway 192 and east of Highway 154 — including half of Montecito and parts of Santa Barbara — was under either a mandatory or voluntary evacuation order.
Of greatest concern, Childers said, is the northwest flank of the blaze, burning in the Santa Barbara backcountry.
Although that portion of the fire is several miles from populated areas, it could prove disastrous if strong north winds develop and push the flames south over the ridge into Montecito, Summerland Santa Barbara and Goleta.
Some of the chaparral in that area is many decades old, having not burned since the 1932 Matilija Fire, which blackened 220,000 acres. That makes it susceptible to intense burning.
Fire behavior analyst Brendan Ripley, a captain with the Ventura County Fire Department, explained that much of that vegetation is thick, dry, dead material that is primed for combustion. In addition, he said, years of droughts have left moisture levels in the vegetation dangerously low.
Add to that a forecast calling for hot, dry and windy weather through the coming week, and the potential exists for the Thomas Fire to continue burning indefinitely.
The fire ignited the night of Dec. 4 near Santa Paula, about 40 miles east of Santa Barbara. The cause has not yet been determined.
Saturday night, the fire roared out of the Matilija Canyon drainage and down toward Jamison Lake and the Juncal area. The entire canyon was charred, and the caretaker’s cabin was destroyed.
“That’s a big area,” Childers said. “The fire moved about six miles last night and today. If it did that again, it would be threatening Highway 154. We’re hoping to stop it beforehand.”
Firefighters have multiple strategies for accomplishing that goal, he said.
They include building containment and contingency lines in the front country, providing a heavy presence of firefighters for structure protection in urban areas, re-establishing and strengthening existing fire breaks, and guiding the flames toward the footprints of recent fires — such as last year’s Rey Fire — where the fuel loads are much smaller.
Officials made clear that regardless of what else is done, making significant progress on the fire will require a change in the weather, something not expected until at least the end of the week, according to Ripley.
On Monday morning, Calfire gave this updated assessment of the fire:
“Severe fire weather will continue to promote significant fire growth further into Santa Barbara County, threatening the communities of Montecito and Summerland. Gusty Santa Ana winds will continue to push fire to the west while very low fuel moistures, high temperatures and single-digit relative humidities will support fire growth on the west and north sides.
“Extreme fire behavior will continue to hamper control efforts. Firefighters will remain engaged in structure defense operations and scout for opportunities to establish direct perimeter control.
“Gusty northeast winds will cause the fire to threaten areas of the city of Santa Barbara. Fire will continue to threaten the communities of Carpenteria, Summerland, Montecito and surrounding areas.”
To date, the Thomas Fire has destroyed at least 789 structures and damaged another 184, although officials have noted that damage assessments are not complete.
A 70-year-old Santa Paula woman died in a car crash while fleeing the flames the night of Dec. 4.
Nearly 6,400 personnel are assigned to the blaze as of Monday morning, including 856 engines, 48 water tenders, 113 hand crews, 67 bulldozers, 48 water tenders and 30 helicopters.
Some 18,000 structures remain threatened and suppression costs to date have totaled nearly $34 million.
Monday morning, containment was at 15 percent.
Mandatory evacuation orders are in effect for the following areas:
» North of Highway 192 to East Camino Cielo between Highway 150 and Mission Canyon Road.
» Hot Springs Road to Buena Vista Road, from Highway 192 north to East Camino Cielo
» Buena Vista Road east to the county line and north of Highway 192 (E. Valley Road), to include the 900 block of Park Lane east.
» Carpinteria area east of Toro Canyon Road east to Highway 150, north of Highway 192 to Camino Cielo.
» Carpinteria area east of intersection of Casitas Pass Road and Highway 192, north of Highway 192, west of the county line.
»Highway 192 north to East Camino Cielo between Toro Canyon Road and Linden Avenue.
» Shepherd Mesa, Gobernador Canyon and Rincon Point.
Voluntary evacuation warnings are in effect for these areas:
» Mission Canyon Road to Highway 154, between Highway 192 and East Camino Cielo.
» All of Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito south of Highway 192.
Click here for an updated map of evacuation areas in Santa Barbara County.
His name and details on his condition were not available.
Most Santa Barbara County schools canceled classes for at least Monday, and Westmont College closed its campus in the Montecito foothills since it was in the mandatory evacuation zone Sunday night.
An air quality warning for Santa Barbara County areas continues Monday and free N-95 masks are being distributed at the following sites:
» Costco in the Camino Real Marketplace(7095 Market Pl Drive, Goleta), 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
» Franklin Community Center (1136 East Montecito Street, Santa Barbara), 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
» Albertsons in Carpinteria (1018 Casitas Pass Road, Carpinteria),10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
» Santa Barbara Public Library, 40 East Anapamu Street, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
» Lompoc Home Depot (1701 East Ocean, Lompoc), 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
And the county added a new site Monday morning, the Buellton CVS, at 218 E Highway 246, which will distribute masks until 10 p.m.
“Please note that the N-95 masks require a tight seal to be effective and as a result the available adult sized masks will provide only limited protection for most children,” county Public Health officials said in a statement. “N-95 masks when fitted properly provide some protection from the fine particles in smoke. Ordinary dust masks and surgical masks do not provide this protection.”
The threat of the growing Thomas Fire and the continuing unhealthy air quality for Santa Barbara County also caused many services and businesses to close their doors.
Santa Barbara County Superior Court officials said jurors scheduled to report for duty in downtown Santa Barbara on Monday will have their service continued to another date, while jurors in Santa Maria should report for duty if directed to do so.
Jury trials will not go forward in Santa Barbara courtrooms Monday, but other criminal proceedings were on, according to the county. Lompoc, Santa Maria and juvenile court will be open and operating Monday, officials said.
Santa Barbara County also announced that trash pickup would continue for residential customers this week, but green waste and recyclables will not be collected in Goleta, Santa Barbara and South Coast unincorporated areas of Montecito, Mission Canyon, Isla Vista and the eastern Goleta Valley. Commercial solid waste service will continue as usual.
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