Winds Fuel Thomas Fire as it Pushes Toward Santa Barbara and Montecito
Firefighters from the Governors Office of Emergency Services monitor the advance of smoke and flames from the Thomas Fire on December 16, 2017 in Montecito, California. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Firefighters trying to prevent one of the largest fires in California's history from consuming homes in the wealthy enclaves of Santa Barbara and Montecito are hoping less powerful winds will help them after they managed to stop the Thomas Fire from burning thousands of residences.
The Thomas Fire, which has been burning since Dec. 4 in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, grew overnight to 269,000 acres. It remains 40 percent contained. It has destroyed more than 750 structures, most of them homes, and damaged almost 250 others. Another 18,000 buildings remain in jeopardy.
This is now the third-largest fire in California history. If it surpasses 273,000 acres, it will become the largest in the state's history, surpassing the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County.
After winds roared at around 30 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph on Saturday, they are expected to ease Sunday.
But even the lower intensity winds, with gusts of up to 35 mph, are still extremely dangerous, said fire spokesman Jude Olivas. He said 400 fire engines were sent to protect homes in the area and firefighters saved thousands of homes on Saturday as they dealt with "extreme and erratic" fire behavior.
The winds "will go down a little bit, hopefully we can do the same job (Sunday) that we did (Saturday)," Olivas said.
Early Sunday morning, Ventura County officials lifted evacuation orders for Highway 150 between Santa Ana and Highway 192.
All of the mandatory evacuation orders issued Saturday for Santa Barbara county remain in effect. They include:
All areas east of Highway 154, south of East Camino Cielo, west of Toro Canyon and north of Highway 101 at Toro Canyon to South Salinas then north of Alameda Padre Serra and to Highway 192 west to 154.
The previous evacuation order for the area east of Toro Canyon to Casitas Pass Road north of Highway 192 and south of East Camino Cielo remains in effect.
Pierre Henry, owner of the Bree'osh Bakery in Montecito, said he got a text to evacuate Saturday morning as the fire approached homes.
"The worst was the smoke," Henry said. "You couldn't breathe at all, and it became worse when the wind started. All the ashes and the dust on the street were in the air. It was very, very frightening."
The mandatory evacuations around Montecito and neighboring Summerland came as firefighters sprayed water onto hot spots sparked by blowing embers. They also drove to the historic San Ysidro Ranch in yellow firetrucks as heavy smoke rose from the coastal hills, blotting out blue skies.
About 95,000 people have been placed under mandatory evacuation. The evacuation zone near Santa Barbara on Saturday was 17 miles long and up to 5 miles wide. The newly expanded evacuation orders encompassed about 3,300 people.
In downtown Santa Barbara, Maya Schoop-Rutten, owner of Chocolate Maya, said she saw through the window of her chocolate shop smoke suddenly appear after strong winds blew through.
"It was absolutely incredible," she said. "There was a huge mushroom of smoke that happened in just a matter of a few minutes."
Restaurants and small stores on normally bustling State Street were shuttered.
"It's a ghost town. Everything is shut down," Schoop-Rutten said. "It's very, very eerie."
Schoop-Rutten said the fire is taking an economic toll, even if it doesn't invade the city.
"It's tragic for businesses at this time of the year because this is when we make the money," she said. "Imagine all the restaurants, all the Christmas parties have been cancelled. People lost a ton of revenue in the past few days."
At the Santa Barbara Zoo, which was in a voluntary evacuation zone on Saturday, workers began putting some animals into crates and kennels, to ready them for possible evacuation.
The zoo has about 150 species of animals, including a pair of Amur leopards, a critically endangered species. Workers began putting vultures, California condors and some smaller animals into crates and kennels in case the fire approached.
"Everything is fine right now. The wind has shifted in our favor," spokesman Dean Noble said. "However, we just don't want to get caught by something unexpected."
Other zoos are ready to accept the evacuated animals, he said. The Fresno zoo has an incubator available for a baby giant anteater, and the San Diego zoo is prepared to accept the Amur leopards and other cats, Noble said.
The northbound lanes of U.S. Highway 101, coming up the coast from Los Angeles, were closed for a few hours south of Santa Barbara, with cars stopped on the freeway.
The 418-square-mile Thomas Fire was moving rapidly westward and crested Montecito Peak, just north of Montecito. Known for its star power, the enclave boasts the mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.
"It is right above the homes," Olivas said.
Winfrey expressed her dismay on her Twitter account.
"Still praying for our little town. Winds picked up this morning creating a perfect storm of bad for firefighters," Winfrey tweeted on Saturday. It was not clear if the former talk show host was in Montecito.
As the northerly "sundowner" wind was driving the fire south and west, firefighters could only hope it would calm back down.
"When the sundowners surface in that area and the fire starts running down slopes, you are not going to stop it," Mark Brown, of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told a news conference. "And we are not going to stand in front of it and put firefighters in untenable situations."
One firefighter has been killed battling the blaze. Cory Iverson, 32, of San Diego, died of burns and smoke inhalation, according to autopsy results announced Saturday. Officials previously said an accident led to his death but have not released more details.
Everything about the fire has been massive, from the sheer scale of destruction that cremated entire neighborhoods to the legions attacking it: about 8,300 firefighters from nearly a dozen states, aided by 78 bulldozers and 29 helicopters.
The cause of the Thomas Fire remains under investigation. So far, firefighting costs have surpassed $116 million.