Firefighters use drip torches to set a backfire at night in an effort to make progress against the Thomas Fire before the winds return with the daylight near Lake Casitas on Dec. 9, 2017, near Ojai, California. Strong Santa Ana winds have been feeding major wildfires all week, destroying hundreds of houses and forcing tens of thousands of people to stay away from their homes. (David McNew/Getty Images)
The Thomas Fire, which broke out a week ago in Ventura County, is now the fifth largest in California history. As the fire exploded in size over the weekend, firefighters kept the wall of flames from descending mountains into coastal neighborhoods.
According to KPCC, the fire has grown to 230,500 acres, or 360 square miles — nearly the size of San Diego.
Tens of thousands remained under evacuation orders Monday as the fire churned west through the foothill areas of Carpinteria and Montecito, seaside towns about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Much of the fire's rapid new growth occurred on the eastern and northern fronts into unoccupied areas of Los Padres National Forest, where the state's fourth-largest fire burned a decade ago.
The blaze, which had already destroyed more than 750 buildings, gutted six more in Carpinteria on Sunday, officials said. As of Monday morning it was just 15 percent contained.
Cal Fire reported that three other major fires burning in Southern California — the Lilac Fire, the Rye Fire and the Creek Fire — were 80 percent, 93 percent and 95 percent contained, respectively. It was only the Thomas Fire that grew worse over the weekend, prompting evacuations.
"We're still anxious. I'm not frightened yet," Carpinteria resident Roberta Lehtinen told KABC-TV. "I don't think it's going to come roaring down unless the winds kick up."
Forecasters predicted that dry winds that have fanned several fires across the region would begin to lose their power Monday. Light gusts were pushing onshore, driving the flames back up hillsides and away from communities, said Santa Barbara County fire spokesman Mike Eliason. But the possibility of "unpredictable" gusts would keep firefighters on edge for days, he said.
Santa Ana winds have long contributed to some of the region's most disastrous wildfires. They blow from inland toward the Pacific Ocean, speeding up as they squeeze through mountain passes and canyons.
With the air thick with acrid smoke, even residents of areas not under evacuation orders took the opportunity to leave, fearing another shutdown of U.S. 101, a key coastal highway that was closed intermittently last week. Officials handed out masks to residents who stayed behind in Montecito, the wealthy hillside enclave that's home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges and Drew Barrymore.
Smoke shrouded Rob Lowe's home and the actor wore a mask as he livestreamed his family leaving on Sunday.
"Praying for the people in my area," he said on Instagram. "Hope everybody's getting out safe like we are, and thanks for the prayers and thoughts. And good luck to the firefighters, we need you!"
"I'm sending lots of love and gratitude to the fire department and sheriffs. Thank you all," she wrote.
As containment increased on the other major blazes in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties, resources from those fires were diverted to the Santa Barbara foothills.
Fires are not typical in Southern California this time of year but can break out when dry vegetation and too little rain combine with the winds. Though the state emerged this spring from a years-long drought, hardly any measurable rain has fallen in the region over the past six months.
Officials have warned of unhealthy air for large swaths of the region, and the small mountain town of Ojai experienced hazardous levels of smoke at times. The South Coast Air Quality Management District urged residents to stay indoors if possible and avoid vigorous outdoor activities.
Despite the size and number of wildfires burning in the region, there has been only one confirmed fatality: The death of a 70-year-old woman, who crashed her car on an evacuation route, is attributed to the fire in Santa Paula, a small city where the Thomas Fire began.