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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on December 12th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 41 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 18, Issue 41

Firefighters make gains with Thomas Fire


Mild winds on the night of Dec. 11 helped fire crews across Santa Barbara and Ventura counties make significant gains on establishing a perimeter around the flaming behemoth known as the Thomas Fire.

The frenetic fire spun out of control on Dec. 4 in Ventura County and burned 234,000 acres—266 square miles—by Dec. 12, making it the fifth largest fire in California's recorded history. As of the Sun's press time, Cal Fire reported the Thomas Fire at 20 percent containment.

Fire crews battled Thomas Fire flames as they approached homes on Shepherd Mesa Road in Carpinteria during the early morning hours of Dec. 10. Mandatory evacuations were issued by the Sheriff’s Office for residents in Carpinteria, Montecito, and unincorporated parts of Santa Barbara County near the fire’s edge.

Speaking to Santa Barbara County's Board of Supervisors on Dec. 12, county Fire Chief Eric Peterson noted how quickly the blaze exploded into its current state.

"We are truly in unprecedented, historic territory with this fire," he said, adding that the Thomas Fire saw two different instances where it expanded by more than 60,000 acres in a single day.

Just one of those extreme fire "runs," or periods of rapid expansion, is more than the entire acreage of Santa Barbara County's Sherpa Fire (7,500 acres in 2016), Whittier Fire (18,500 acres), and Alamo Fire (29,000) combined.

The Thomas Fire in one week also nearly matched the total size of 2007's Zaca Fire (240,000 acres) in Santa Barbara County.

"[The Zaca] took two months to reach the same size," Peterson said, "[It] is just amazing how fast this thing has moved."

Peterson noted federal, state, and local agencies had already spent roughly $50 million battling the blaze. He said the projected estimated final cost for firefighters' efforts numbered somewhere around $120 million "and potentially even more than that."

Nearly 7,000 total personnel had been dispatched to the area to aid with containment and suppression. That includes more than 900 fire engines, 50 water tenders, 30 helicopters, dozens of bulldozers, and 125 handcrews.

"We have virtually a small army of people from all over the country helping us with this fire," Peterson added.

Incident Cmdr. Rocky Opliger told the county supervisors on Dec. 12 that weather forecasters monitoring the area were predicting no rain in the immediate future. A veteran of several major fires, including the Zaca, Opliger echoed Chief Peterson's comments regarding the unique nature of the massive December blaze.

"I can't understate the conditions that we face right now in the local area: unprecedented fire behavior and low humidities—I think this morning at Montecito it was at 1 percent," he said.

Since Dec. 8, the humidity around the fire has stayed in the single digits. Opliger pointed to Santa Anna winds and virtually no moisture for almost 250 days for the affected area as primary drivers for the blaze's rapid expansion.

"From the very start we knew this fire was going to be a major fire," said Scott Jalbert, Cal Fire's unit chief for San Luis Obispo County and an agency administrator for the incident.

Santa Barbara County Fire Public Information Officer Mike Eliason told the Sun the winds, which came in periodic high-speed gusts, along with thick clouds of smoke, contributed to the at times limited air response in the fire's early stages.

"A strong crosswind can slow an airplane down to almost stall speed as they make their drops [of flame retardant]," Eliason explained. "And some of ours were coming in at hurricane force."

The winds died down on the night of Dec. 11, which allowed crews to make progress in expanding containment from 15 percent to 20 percent, Eliason said.

More importantly, the winds were onshore, and pushed the flames away from the communities along the coast and back up into the mountains. Eliason said crews were confident the fire would not be able to creep back to its former progress along Highway 101 because most of the available fuel had already been burned in the initial run.

As of the Sun's press time, firefighters had held the blaze's western advance to Romero and Torro canyons, a few miles northeast of Montecito. Near Carpinteria, crews employed prescribed burns to prep the area in case the fire advanced further downslope toward the homes and neighborhoods along the edge of the mountains north of the highway.

"We have contingency lines in place, and we want to keep that fire away from the communities," Eliason added. "It's gonna take a serious easterly wind to push that fire back south, we hope that doesn't happen."

But while the Thomas Fire may be finally moving away from its immediate coastal rampage, as it turns inland, the fire threatens vast swaths of forest land and watersheds for the cities and towns below it.

Incident Cmdr. Opliger said firefighters would focus on protecting life and property first over protecting water resources in the mountains, which could be severely affected in coming months by heavy winter rains, sediment runoff, and debris flows.

"The fire is seeing significant activity in the Los Padres National Forest, which could impact key watersheds," he added. "But we had really good progress last night, and we also have contingencies if we get increased winds to minimize the impact of the fire backing down into the urban interface of Santa Barbara."

Roughly 800 structures have been destroyed since the blaze began, another 187 were damaged, while more than 18,000 buildings remain threatened.

Evacuation orders were in effect across Ventura County as of the Sun's press time. In Santa Barbara County, mandatory orders were still in place for Carpinteria, Montecito, and unincorporated county land from east at Mission Canyon Road to the west from State Route 150, and north of State Route 192 to East Camino Cielo.

"We've got a lot of work to do as we try to keep [the fire] away from communities," Eliason said.

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