Winds Threaten to Fan Thomas Fire, Burning Near Thousands of Homes in Santa Barbara County

The Thomas fire started in Ventura County and scorched hundreds of thousands of acres as it burned into Santa Barbara County

What to Know

  • The Thomas Fire has destroyed at least 800 buildings and burned more than 236,000 acres
  • The fire began Dec. 4 in Ventura County and burned into Santa Barbara County
  • About 18,000 structures are threatened and evacuation orders remain in effect for about 94,600 people

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The fifth largest wildfire in California history was threatening thousands of homes Tuesday as it churned through coastal mountains amid persistently dangerous weather conditions.

Red Flag warnings for fire danger due to Santa Ana winds and a critical lack of moisture were extended into the week instead of expiring Monday afternoon as was initially forecast. The winds could fan the Thomas Fire, which has chewed through 236,000 acres of brush in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, destroying hundreds of homes.

On Monday, ash fell like snow and heavy smoke had residents gasping for air in foothill towns near Santa Barbara, the latest flare-up after a week of wind-fanned wildfires throughout the region. With acrid smoke thick in the air, even residents not under evacuation orders were leaving, fearing another shutdown of a key coastal highway that was closed intermittently last week.

Officials handed out masks to those who stayed behind in Montecito, an exclusive community about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The fire, which began Dec. 4, has burned 236,000 acres and destroyed nearly 900 buildings.

Officials said the fire is only 25 percent contained and has cost $55.6 million.

About 18,000 structures are threatened and evacuation orders remain in effect for about 94,600 people, according to a Tuesday morning CAL FIRE incident report.

Customers coming into Jeannine's American Bakery in Montecito brushed ash from their clothes and marveled at smoke so heavy that visibility was down to just a few feet.

"There's so much ash it's unbelievable," manager Richard Sanchez said. "Everything is white. The streets are covered, cars are covered, our parking lot is covered."

The area is home to stars such as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges and Drew Barrymore. Actor Rob Lowe wore a mask as he live-streamed his family evacuating Sunday from their smoke-shrouded home.

"Praying for the people in my area," he said to his Instagram followers. "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!"

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted that neighbors were helping each other and their animals get to safety.

"I'm sending lots of love and gratitude to the fire department and sheriffs. Thank you all," she wrote.

Santa Ana winds have long contributed to some of the region's most disastrous wildfires. They blow from the inland toward the Pacific Ocean, speeding up as they squeeze through mountain passes and canyons.

The National Weather Service said that if the long-term forecast holds, there will have been 13 consecutive days of dry offshore flow before it ends Friday afternoon. There have only been 17 longer streaks since 1948, including the record of 24 days set between December 1953 and January 1954.

High fire risk is expected to last into January, adding to fears that 2017's deadly and destructive wildfire danger will continue. CAL FIRE reported more than 6,760 fires in California from Jan. 1 to Dec. 3. Those fires scorched more than 505,000 acres. During that same period last year, Cal Fire reported 4,742 fires that burned 244,297 acres.

The state is coming off one of its wettest winters in years, which left hillsides covered in grass and other vegetation. That grass dried out in summer and turned into tinder, providing fuel for rapidly spreading fires often pushed by strong winds. 

An increase in the number of dead and dying trees also can exacerbate the wildfire threat, Cal Fire officials said. An estimated 102 million trees have died in California due to the state's five-year dry spell and bark beetle infestation.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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