Home Emergency Management News Thomas Fire Now the Fifth Largest in Modern California History

Thomas Fire Now the Fifth Largest in Modern California History


By Sarah Ravani
San Francisco Chronicle

The Thomas Fire, which started in Ventura County a week ago, grew by 500 acres overnight to 230,500 acres on Monday, as firefighters worked to prevent the relentless blaze from spreading to multimillion dollar homes in posh neighborhoods of Santa Barbara County.

The inferno, now the fifth largest in modern state history, was only 15 percent contained as it burned through extremely dry vegetation and treacherous terrain, causing thousands of new evacuations over the weekend.

"This thing's a monster," Firefighter Jason Hodge of the Ventura County Fire Department said Monday morning. "Right now, the thing that's really unique about this fire is just the sheer width of it. Just to drive from one end of the fire (in Fillmore in Ventura County) to the other (in Santa Barbara County) with no traffic takes 45 minutes."

The strategy for Monday is preventing the fire from getting any closer to homes in the Carpinteria and Summerland area while trying to stretch the perimeter around it, Hodge said.

So far, six structures in Carpinteria, just 11 miles south of Santa Barbara, have been destroyed, Hodge added.

Mandatory evacuations were in place for some Santa Barbara neighborhoods and the community of Montecito, north of Highway 192, and eastern parts of Caprinteria, according to city officials in Santa Barbara County.

An evacuation shelter was set up at the UC Santa Barbara's Recreation Center.

Evacuations were lifted for most of Ventura and Santa Paula, where the Thomas Fire started near Thomas Aquinas College around 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 4, according to Cal Fire.

In total, 94,607 people had evacuated over a fire ravaged area measuring nearly 360 square miles. At least 798 structures have been destroyed and 18,000 others remain threatened, Cal Fire reported.

Hodge said 6,397 firefighters were working to contain the conflagration -- nearly 2,000 more than Sunday -- making it one of the largest deployments in California history.

Bay Area fire departments were called on to bring personnel and engines to the Thomas Fire late Sunday, including San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda County, Hayward and Fremont.

With the Santa Ana winds driving the blaze expected to continue in the area, forecasters said a red flag warning was still in place for Santa Barbara County through Monday evening.

Wind gusts were expected to reach up to 30 mph at higher elevations with gusts up to 20 mph in the valleys, said Matt Mehle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

"The air mass is still extremely dry," Mehle said. "That's why there is still concern out there. Warm and dry conditions will continue through Thursday."

There is a slight possibility of rain around Dec. 20, Mehle added.

Montecito and Carpinteria is home to such celebrities Ellen Degeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Jeff Bridges.

Degeneres tweeted Sunday that she evacuated her pets from the $7.2 million Montecito home she purchased last December.

and that "Everyone in the Montecito area is checking up on each other and helping to get people and animals to safety," Degeneres tweeted. "I'm proud to be a part of this community. I'm sending lots of love and gratitude to the fire department and sheriffs. Thank you all. #ThomasFire ."

Winfrey tweeted, "Peace be Still, is my prayer tonight. For all the fires raging thru my community and beyond. #peacebestill ."

Most school districts throughout Santa Barbara County remained closed Monday -- with some, including Santa Barbara Unified, Carpinteria Unified and Montecito Unified expected to remain closed until after the holiday break.

As the Thomas Fire raged on, firefighters made headway in the battle against four other blazes that sprouted throughout the region last week.

In San Diego County, the Lilac Fire -- which has burned 4,100 acres, leveled at least 151 structures and damaged 56 others -- was 71 percent contained Sunday. Full containment on the blaze was expected by Dec. 21, Cal Fire reported.

The 15,619-acre Creek Fire, which ignited in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles County, was at 95 percent containment. Based on early estimates, 60 residential and 63 outbuildings were destroyed in the fire, and 81 other structures were damaged.

The 6,049-acre Rye Fire in Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County) that started Tuesday was 93 percent contained. Six structures were destroyed, and three were damaged.

The 422-acre Skirball Fire, which broke out Wednesday in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, was 85 percent contained. Twelve structures were damaged and six destroyed.

One person has died in the fires, a 70-year-old Santa Paula woman who was killed trying to evacuate from the Thomas Fire in her car, officials said.

Last week, President Trump declared a federal state of emergency for the second time since wildfires ravaged Northern California in October and killed 44 people -- ordering federal assistance to supplement state and local emergency response.

In a visit Saturday to the fire-torn areas, Gov. Jerry Brown called on the federal government to invest more in infrastructure and firefighting capacity.

"I will say that for all the challenges that this fire has presented, the fact that we've had so few injuries and really haven't seen the lives lost that this fire has the potential for has kept people in pretty good spirits overall," Hodge said.

Sarah Ravani is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SarRavani ___


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