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Thomas fire leaves behind barren 'moonscape' as it threatens Montecito, Carpinteria

Reinvigorated by Santa Ana gusts and canyons of bone-dry vegetation, the Thomas fire surged into the Santa Barbara County foothills Sunday, forcing evacuations in the coastal communities of Carpinteria and Montecito.

Wind gusts that helped push a massive wildfire into Santa Barbara County this weekend were growing weaker Monday, but authorities say the week-old Thomas fire still threatens the coastal enclaves of Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito.

After watching the fire race west over the Ventura County line and explode to 230,500 acres overnight, firefighters struggled to increase overall containment to 15%. In some areas, the fire burned so fiercely that it left behind a barren and blackened moonscape, firefighters said.

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On Monday morning, fire crews prepared to defend structures in the foothills north of Carpinteria and surrounding communities from a wall of flames.

The unique east-west orientation of area mountain ranges, along with narrow winding roads, make it very difficult for firefighters to battle the fire’s western flank head-on, officials said. Instead, crews headed to the residential streets in the south-facing foothills to set up defensive positions.

"The terrain … makes it super-difficult for us to position with normal tactics," said Kalin Ramirez, a fire information officer.

While crews stage in town to protect homes, a fleet of fixed-wing aircraft will attack flames higher up in the mountains and try to douse the fire directly, Ramirez said.

A reduction in winds Monday was lending a hand to some firefighters.

“Wind was probably not the biggest factor last night to this morning — it’s probably more the complex terrain, very dry and possibly widespread fuels for the fire and the fact that it’s a pretty large and ongoing fire,” said Robbie Munroe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The fire is in the top five of California’s largest modern fires. On Sunday, it had surged into the Santa Barbara County foothills, forcing evacuations in the coastal communities of Carpinteria and Montecito.

Smoke from the fire has formed a towering pyrocumulus cloud that is capable of creating its own weather and sudden wind shifts, experts say. The fire has also spread ash and particulate across the region, creating unhealthy air quality from Santa Barbara to Bakersfield.

The smoke has also contributed to hazardous driving conditions by limiting visibility.

“If driving in smoky areas, keep windows rolled up and vents closed,” urged Santa Barbara County’s Twitter account. “If you need air conditioning, make sure you set your system on re-circulate …”

As the fire grew Sunday, containment had dropped from 15% to 10%, authorities said. By Sunday evening, the blaze had scorched 230,000 acres. At least one firefighter was injured during the battle when he fractured his lower leg. The Redding firefighter is in good spirits and is returning home, the Redding Fire Department said in a statement Monday.

The number of structures destroyed stands at 798, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Wind speeds are expected to be on the lower end of what’s been seen over the last week, forecasters say.

Over Sunday night and into Monday morning, there were wind gusts of around 20 mph across the lower mountains and foothills in the region of southeastern Santa Barbara County into southwestern Ventura County.

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Firefighters are taking advantage of a break in the wind in the Carpinteria area, said Capt. Dave Zaniboni, public information officer for Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

“The onshore breeze is actually keeping the fire up where we want to keep it, up in the foothills and not down into the populated areas,” Zaniboni said. “Our plan is to take advantage of this weather with aircraft as much as we can … here in Santa Barbara we had the threat early yesterday morning, where we lost a couple of homes in the Carpinteria foothills. This area, we’ve gotten a huge break.”

There are water-carrying helicopters making continuous drops and hand crews and dozers going directly on the fire line, he said. Stronger winds are expected in the afternoon, although nothing like before.

There have been an estimated 7,200 orders of evacuation for individuals and 34,000 warnings — telling residents to be prepared — in Santa Barbara city areas, according to the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

“The plan for today is to go direct on the fire line wherever we can and take advantage of the minimal wind,” Zaniboni said. “We’re just plugging away and working real hard at it and trying to keep it from burning even more homes and trying to put this thing out so we can all have Christmas.”

Celebrities have found their homes in the wealthy enclave of Montecito under threat. Montecito is home to celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe.

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

Lowe also took to Twitter Sunday, stating that the fires were closing in with “firefighters making brave stands.”

“Could go either way. Packing to evacuate now,” he said.

Both Winfrey and Lowe have been through at least one fire in the area before. In 2008, Lowe described embers raining down.

“It was absolutely Armageddon,” he said at the time.

Ellen DeGeneres, who also took to Twitter on Sunday, said her house was under threat of being burned and that their pets had to be evacuated.

“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”

Montecito looked almost like a ghost town Monday, with a only a scattering of residents remaining. Tke sky was a grey haze and the acrid air stung the throat.

Cal Fire Fresno-Kings Battalion Chief Roger Raines and his platoon of more than a dozen trucks and water tenders were on hand, however. It was their job to assess how vulnerable the homes north of the highway between San Ysidro Road and Park Lane were to the incoming fire.

Firefighters in Montecito were going door to door to see who did, or did not, evacuate; which homes had water sources; which had good clearance between their property and the forest; and if the homes appeared to be defendable should the Thomas fire bear down on the community.

The Thomas fire isn't the worst Raines has seen — he was up in Napa County just two months ago for the wine country fires — but it was unusual.

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"Its December,” he said. “This doesn't happen in December."

Meteorologist Munroe said the strongest winds are expected more toward the Ventura-Los Angeles County line.

“Even that is not expected to be particularly strong, but since it’s so dry out there it doesn’t take much in the way of winds to create those critical fire weather conditions,” he said. “We’ll see wind gusts in that ... area between 20 and 35 mph, maybe a few mountain sites might see up to about 40, but that’s the most we’re expecting right now.”

The winds near the Thomas fire might be a little bit stronger from the north later on Monday night into early Tuesday morning, Munroe said, possibly 5 mph stronger.

“Right now it doesn’t look too terribly strong, but really any increase in wind is something to watch out for given this fire’s history.”

The last time some of the slopes and canyons burned in the mountains east of Santa Barbara was in the 1970s, when four firefighters operating bulldozers died in a rollover accident.

Cal Fire officials said Monday that in such difficult terrain, they essentially have no way to get boots and hoses on the ground to attack the western front of the Thomas fire directly.

Some of the newly burned areas have been turned into a moonscape, Ramirez said. These are typically areas that have not seen flames for decades, and they are now vulnerable to mudslides if heavy winter rains arrive, officials said.

Moonscaping is when brush burns completely away, “so that the landscape looks like the surface of the moon,” said Ian MacDonald, a public information officer for the Thomas fire.

“That isn’t in all areas, but in some areas that’s what’s happening, which is an indication of what we call extreme fire behavior,” MacDonald said.

Since it erupted near Thomas Aquinas College north of Santa Paula on Dec. 4, the Thomas fire has forced 88,000 people to flee their homes. Official estimates have put the cost of combating the blaze at $25 million.

In Los Angeles County, firefighters made progress on blazes in Sylmar, Santa Clarita and Bel-Air. The Creek fire was 95% contained, and the Rye fire was 93% contained as of Sunday evening. The Skirball fire was 85% contained.

In northern San Diego County, the Lilac fire, which was 80% contained, had burned 4,100 acres and destroyed more than 100 structures along the Highway 76 corridor that stretches west from the 15 Freeway through Bonsall and Fallbrook.

Back in Santa Barbara County on Monday, ash and silence blanketed the beach community of Summerland.

The quaint eateries, coffee shops and wine shops along Lillie Drive were closed or empty as ash fell. Residents walked their dogs and checked the daily fire map posted on a board outside the local fire station.

Up along State Route 192, Laurent Pellerin wore a surgical mask as he packed his red Audi station wagon with winter clothes and snow chains.

The 48-year-old home decor store manager was getting ready to drive his family to Chicago for a new job when the fire closed in on his cottage near Toro Canyon over the weekend. Now they are leaving, unsure if their home will survive after they go.

“It is surreal; we are leaving the fires and rushing to get the snow chains for winter,” he said.

Across the road, a private Wildfire Protection Unit from the Insurer AIG was patrolling one of the high value homes in the area.

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