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Thomas Fire: Evacuated Homeowners Brace for Next Onslaught of Dangerous Winds

Firefighters have increased containment of the state's second-largest wildfire during a two-day respite from strong gusts, but the forecast calls for more wind

What to Know

  • The Thomas fire began on Dec. 4 has destroyed at least 750 homes
  • The wildfire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties is the second-largest on record in California
  • Winds are expected to build Wednesday before stronger gusts on Thursday, raising fears among evacuated homeowners

Thousands of people under wildfire evacuation orders in Southern California are lefting wondering whether they'll be home for the holiday as fire officials braced for a new round of strong winds Wednesday.

The Thomas Fire -- one of the largest ever recorded in the state -- is more than half contained, but officials were wary that harsh gusts could whip up new danger. Those who fled the flames in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties feared they might not have homes to go back to.

The devastating fire that began on Dec. 4 has destroyed at least 750 homes. At 272,000 acres, it is the second-largest wildfire on record in California behind the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County. The fire that began in Ventura County and spread to Santa Barbara County is the seventh-most destructive wildfire on record in the state. 

And, homeowners fear it may still deliver more devastation.

"My husband has the feeling, 'Why aren't they letting us back in?"' said 82-year-old Curry Sawyer, whose Christmas tree is up still waiting for their grandkids to decorate it after she and her husband Ray had to evacuate from their home in Santa Barbara two weeks ago. "But they've got hot spots up there and if we get more Santa Ana winds, we're going to be back to square one. I'm not sure we're out of the woods."

Even if their beloved home of five decades survives the next onslaught of winds, the Sawyers are preparing for Christmas in yet another hotel.

"This is getting ridiculous," Curry Sawyer said from her hotel in Goleta on Tuesday.

The Sawyers' gifts for their family are hidden away in closets waiting to be wrapped, the ingredients for gingerbread men are sitting in cupboards, and the kindling for the fireplace has been chopped.

They were planning a big family Christmas with their sons, who each are married and have a daughter, and live in Los Angeles and Amherst, Massachusetts.

If their home doesn't make it, or if a mandatory evacuation remains in place come Christmas, Sawyer said the family will make do in Los Angeles. Her son's home can accommodate her other son's family, but Sawyer and her husband would have to stay in a hotel.

"We'll be more just trying to cramp ourselves into a small space," she said. "But at least we'll be together."

As of Tuesday, 432 people were still staying at evacuation shelters run by the Red Cross, agency spokeswoman Georgia Duncan said. The shelters are preparing to stay open for Christmas and many agencies are donating toys so that the children there have presents to open.

One company already donated more than 100 bicycles, mostly for children. And Christmas came early for one 5-year-old boy who was handed a Mickey Mouse doll.

"He just grabbed it and cried because he had lost all of his toys and just thought there would be no Christmas," Duncan said. "To him, yesterday was Christmas."

Marolyn Romero-Sim, her husband and their 9-year-old daughter have been at an evacuation shelter in Ventura for two weeks after they watched their home of four years, an RV, burn in the wildfire, along with their beloved dog, their Christmas tree and a few presents.

The family is trying to save money for another RV but know they'll probably be in the shelter for Christmas.

"I try not to let my daughter know, but I feel horrible," the 34-year-old Romero-Sim said through tears Tuesday. "She's being so understanding. She's just thankful we're going to be together for Christmas."

Some evacuations were lifted Tuesday, but communities remained threatened.

After a two-day lull in powerful winds that drove the flames, crews braced for the return of potentially dangerous gusts. Crews used the calm conditions to build containment lines and set controlled fires to clear dry brush ahead of so-called sundowner winds expected to whip up Wednesday afternoon.

The strongest gusts are expected by Thursday morning. Fire weather watches are in effect for a widespread part of Southern California through Friday morning. 

The Thomas Fire is responsible for two deaths and has burned about 425 square miles (1,100 square kilometers), making it the second-largest in the state since accurate records were kept starting in 1932.

High fire risk is expected to last into January, adding to fears that months of deadly and destructive wildfire danger will extend into early next year. Cal Fire reported 6,982 fires in California from Jan. 1 to Dec. 17, including the devastating North Bay fires in October. Those fires scorched more than 505,900 acres, more than double last year’s burned acreage count. During that same period in 2016, the state firefighting agency reported 4,759 fires that burned 244,304 acres.

California's five-year average for wildfires during that time frame is 4,787 and 202,737 acres burned.

The significant increase in the numbers and size of fires is largely because the state is coming off one of its wettest winters in years in 2016-2017, 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 that can carry hot embers for miles and turn small spot fires into infernos.

The startling number of dead and dying trees also has exacerbated the wildfire threat, Cal Fire officials said. An estimated 129 million trees covering 8.9 million acres have died in California due to drought and bark beetle infestation, according to the USDA Forest Service.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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