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California wildfire continues to grow as strong shifting winds bring new dangers

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Humboldt County firefighters Jacob Monroe, from left, Bobby Gray and Kellee Stoehr mop up an area that was burned by the Thomas Fire on Sunday in Montecito. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

MONTECITO, Calif. — The Thomas fire spread further Sunday morning after a battle to protect homes along the Santa Barbara County coast Saturday succeeded despite intense winds.

The third-largest fire in California history was burning from Santa Barbara to Ventura, fueled by Santa Ana winds. On Sunday morning, the San Fernando Valley was hit by wind gusts topping 40 mph. The National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for canyon and mountain areas.

As of Sunday morning, the fire was 40 percent contained. CalFire said 18,000 structures were threatened.

Fire crews are expected to shift their focus from Santa Barbara to Ventura County, where the northern edge of the fire was moving east, officials said.

On Sunday morning, wind gusts topped 70 mph in mountain areas in the fire zone and 50 mph on the coast in Ventura County, said Kathy Hoxsie, meteorologist with National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Winds are expected to calm down today and Tuesday to 10 to 20 mph, which will “look tranquil” compared with the weekend gusts, Hoxsie said.

Those calmer conditions should allow firefighters to focus on more defensive work like bulldozing fire lines and dropping fire retardant. The humidity levels should also increase during the early part of the week — more help for fire crews, Hoxsie said.

But it will be a short respite, as strong winds and low humidity are expected to return on Wednesday in Santa Barbara County and Thursday in Ventura County, Hoxsie said.In Ventura County, firefighters concentrated on the hills above Fillmore where the wildfire continued to burn. Their efforts were hampered by dry conditions combined with low humidity and strong winds.

Firefighters smothered portions of the Santa Barbara hills with hundreds of thousands of gallons of fire retardant in an attempt to keep embers from igniting spot fires, officials said. Some hillsides were intentionally denuded above Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria, including in Romero and Toro canyons, to limit the potential damage.

Fire officials said 8,300 fire personnel have been mobilized to fight the Thomas fire — the largest mobilization of fire crews to fight any wildfire in California history. Firefighting costs so far stand at $110 million.

Santa Barbara County Fire Division Chief Martin Johnson said Saturday night that the aggressive prevention measures had paid off. Hundreds of homes were spared.

“Earlier this evening I was asked the question, how many structures did we lose today?” Johnson said. “That’s the wrong question to ask. The question to ask is, how many did we save today?”

As the winds began to die down in Santa Barbara early Sunday, fire officials said they were going to take advantage of the moment and extinguish smoldering hot spots in the Montecito area.

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