Multiple fires are raging in Southern California. A series of Santa Ana wind-driven wildfires have destroyed hundreds of structures, forced thousands to flee and smothered the region with smoke in what officials predicted would be a pitched battle for days.
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Thomas fire (Ventura and Santa Barbara counties)
Size: 270,000 acres Containment: 45%
Damage: 1,026 structures have been destroyed, including 728 single-family homes, two multi-family residences and 20 commercial or mixed-use properties. 242 structures have been damaged, and 18,000 are threatened. *As of 8 p.m. Sunday Creek fire (Sylmar) Size: 15,619 acres Containment: 98% Evacuations: Lifted Damage: At least 60 residences and 63 other structures have been destroyed, and 55 residences and 26 other structures have been damaged. An additional 2,500 structures are threatened. *As of 8 p.m. Sunday
Damage: 1,026 structures have been destroyed, including 728 single-family homes, two multi-family residences and 20 commercial or mixed-use properties. 242 structures have been damaged, and 18,000 are threatened.
*As of 8 p.m. Sunday
Creek fire (Sylmar)
Size: 15,619 acres Containment: 98%
Damage: At least 60 residences and 63 other structures have been destroyed, and 55 residences and 26 other structures have been damaged. An additional 2,500 structures are threatened.
*As of 8 p.m. Sunday
Charles McCaleb is all about trying to keep things in perspective.
In 2008, flames from the Tea fire could be seen from Highway 192 in the hills overlooking Montecito as they destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara County.
Last week, the slopes on either side of Highway 101 in Los Angeles were consumed in fire as countless commuters were stuck in traffic and watched the flames draw near.
And so by that standard — without flames actually entering his community — the 70-year-old said he was doing alright on Monday.
He was staffing a table off Highway 192 as a member of the Montecito Emergency Response Recovery Group, a civilian emergency action organization. McCaleb said that volunteering has been a welcome distraction from the looming fire.
"It's not like someone-pointing-a-gun-at-you scared," said McCaleb, who used to work in Army intelligence. "Its more of a controlled fright where you know whats happening."
He hasn't slept much in the last week, he said. His voice is gravelly from days of exposure to increasingly unhealthy air brought on by a series of wildfires that have torn across Southern California since Dec. 4.
He and much of the Montecito community, he said, have been checking websites daily for the latest on the fire. Not just official sources like Cal Fire or the Santa Barbara County website, but any webpage that claims to have the latest details on how the fire is behaving.
McCaleb was up at 3 a.m. Monday, checking his computer for the latest on the Thomas fire, which has burned 230,500 acres since it started in Ventura County a week ago. The fire spread into Santa Barbara County over the weekend and is quickly approaching Montecito, officials said.
McCaleb and his wife were chased out of their weekend home in the Ojai Valley on Wednesday as Santa Ana winds pushed the fire north.
Their two-acre property there is protected by a wide brush clearance and a field recently plowed beween their homes and the hills.
Their biggest concern right now is how their koi pond is faring with all the ash.
Montecito looked almost like a ghost town Monday.
Stores and gas stations in the evacuation zone north of Highway 192 were closed, and only a scattering of residents remained in the neighborhood.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection 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 homes north of the highway between San Ysidro Road and Park Lane were to the incoming fire.
Raines' defense zone includes about 50 multimillion-dollar estates connected by a tangle of narrow, winding tree-lined roads barely wide enough for the trucks assigned to protect them.
On Monday afternoon he sat in his truck at the intersection of Park Lane and East Mountain Drive, just outside the open field his team designated a safety zone — a place they could regroup if things took a turn for the worse.
"This is our first shift here, but we've been running for a week," Raines said. "We were at the Skirball, then were sent to Riverside and now here."
With the 230,500-acre Thomas fire still miles to the east, firefighters in Montecito were going door to door Monday 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 home appeared to be defendable should the Thomas fire bear down on the community.
Raines said many of the homes in his zone looked defendable, with tile roofs and gravel landscaping. But, he clarified, that doesn't mean they're guaranteed to be safe if powerful sundowner winds blast the flames down onto the area.
Gusty winds pushed the fire seven miles west overnight, he said, and by Monday afternoon ash was falling in the Montecito community. The sky was a grey haze, and the acrid air stings the back of the throat.
The crews assigned to protect the foothill homes Monday evening will be on patrol for any embers that can spark a fire, Raines said.
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.
"It’s December,” he said. “This doesn't happen in December."
The quaint eateries, coffee shops and wine shops along Lillie Drive in Summerland were closed or empty Monday as ash fell on the quiet beach town in Santa Barbara County. 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.
The last time some of the slopes and canyons burned in the mountains east of Santa Barbara in the 1970s, four firefighters operating bulldozers died in a rollover accident.
In such difficult terrain, officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said on Monday that they have essentially no way to get boots and hoses on the ground to attack the western front of the Thomas fire directly.
Instead, fire crews caravanned out of the Ventura County Fairgrounds on Monday and headed to the residential streets in the south-facing foothills of Carpinteria. That’s where they set up defensive positions and waited just in case the fire moved downhill .
"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.
The Thomas fire has burned 230,500 acres and was 15% contained Monday morning. None of that containment, however, appears to be on the blaze's western face approaching Santa Barbara.
A rare feature of California's landscape, the Santa Barbara and Carpinteria communities sit in the shadow of an east-west mountain range that is allowing the flames to run west along its spine, as dry, powerful Santa Ana winds push the blaze.
"We look for rivers, roads and ridges" to set up defenses, Ramirez said.
At night when the air cools, the mass of smoke and ash that were launched skyward by the heat of wildfire can collapse on itself. This creates an outward push of wind and heat out in all directions, further driving the fire, Ramirez said.
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. These areas are then left vulnerable to mud slides if heavy winter rains ever 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.
A Redding firefighter who was injured while battling the Thomas fire is returning home, officials said Monday.
The firefighter sustained the injury around 7 a.m. Sunday, the Redding Fire Department said in a statement . He was taken to a Santa Barbara hospital, where doctors treated a fracture to his lower leg.
“Our firefighter is in good spirits and is returning home,” the statement said.
The department said it sent another member to replace the injured firefighter on the assignment.
Since the start of the fire, which is now burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the Redding Fire Department has committed two battalion chiefs and three engine crews, for a total of of 13 personnel, according to the department.
As the Thomas fire continues to rage, burning more than 200,000 acres, 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.
“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 light offshore winds are certainly a factor, but not as important as they’ve been, say, earlier in the week when we saw much stronger winds over the fire.”
The strongest winds are expected more toward the Ventura-Los Angeles County line, Munroe said.
“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 later on Monday night into early Tuesday morning from the north, 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.”
Carlos Guerra couldn’t breathe.
There was smoke in the air and the 89-year-old didn’t know where it was coming from. So he opened the door to his trailer home in Carpinteria last week and saw snow.
“It looked that way at least,” he said. “It was ash, lots of ash.”
Concerned for his health, his neighbors called a Lyft driver to take him to an evacuation center in Santa Barbara. Guerra’s neighborhood has been under voluntary evacuation orders since the Thomas fire began inching closer to his coastal town.
At UC Santa Barbara, the Red Cross gave him a cot and began tending to his medical needs, including taking him to a nearby hospital to get a bad bug bite tended to.
“I’m so grateful for everyone here,” he said.
What he left his home with sat by his cot at the center: an envelope of photos and his motorized wheelchair scooter.
“I also took with me a sense of security,” he said smiling. “I’m being taken care of and, to be honest, I’m not worried if I lose my home.”
He said he was grateful organizations such as the Red Cross are available for people like him.
“Who knows what situation I would have found myself in if I had stayed home,” he said.
Since it started Monday, the Thomas fire has scorched 230,000 acres, making it the fifth-largest wildfire in modern California history.
Here’s a look at the others:
- The Cedar fire burned 273,246 acres in San Diego County in 2003. More than 2,800 structures were destroyed and 15 people died.
- The Rush fire, caused by lightning, burned 271,911 acres in California and another 43,666 in Nevada in 2012.
- The Rim fire in Tuolumne County in 2013 burned 257,314 acres and consumed 112 structures.
- The Zaca fire in Santa Barbara County in 2007 charred 240,207 acres and destroyed one structure.
- The Thomas fire surpassed the Matilija fire — which scorched 220,000 acres in Ventura County in 1932 — as the fifth largest wildfire.
While other large fires raged in California prior to 1932, those records are less reliable, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
As fire crews fought to get a handle on the raging Thomas fire, all but one school district in Santa Barbara County decided to cancel Monday classes, officials said late Sunday.
Several of those districts — including Carpinteria Unified, Montecito Unified, Cold Spring, Santa Barbara Unified, Hope Elementary and Goleta — will be closed until after the New Year. Students had been scheduled to start winter break Dec. 18.
Meanwhile, UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry T. Yang announced that the university has postponed final exams until next year.
Power outages and air quality issues, along with the confusion over an emergency alert that buzzed cellphones countywide around 2 a.m. “have only continued to raise the level of anxiety at an already stressful time,” Yang wrote in a letter to the campus. “Continuation of scheduled exams has become untenable.”
Santa Barbara County was under siege from the Thomas fire Sunday as fire crews fought to keep the destructive blaze from the region’s picturesque beach communities.
Authorities said the out-of-control blaze had scorched 230,000 acres by Sunday evening, making it the fifth largest wildfire in modern California history.
The fire grew by more than 50,000 acres during the day, triggering new evacuation orders for about 5,000 county residents, including those east of Mission Canyon and north of Highway 192. An additional 30,000 residents west of Mission Canyon to Highway 154 and south of Highway 192 to the county line were told to prepare to leave.
Saturday on Wrightwood Road in Bonsall was a time for sifting — sifting through memories, through tears, through ashes.
When the Lilac fire blew through here Thursday afternoon, it burned down at least seven houses on this hilly street, and it would have been worse if firefighters and a half-dozen neighbors hadn’t been there to put out flames that in some places licked to within a few feet of the outside walls.
So along with the lingering smell of wood smoke, there was a swirl of emotion up and down the road Saturday morning. People who lost their houses were grateful to be alive. Those whose houses still stood felt relieved, but also a little guilty, and they grieved for what their neighbors were going through.
It’s a street where everybody seems to know everybody else, if not by name then at least by sight. They shared hugs as some of them returned to their properties for the first time since the fire broke out.
Veterinarian Geoffrey Smith came back to the rubble of what had been a two-story, four-bedroom, 2,250-square-foot house. He’s lived there since 1980 with his wife, and more recently also with his 93-year-old mother. They raised four kids there.
“It had views to die for,” he said. “It was also made out of wood, which is why it burned down.”
John Knapp didn’t know what he would find when he returned to his home in the Rancho Monserate Country Club retirement community Friday morning, a day after the Lilac fire swept through.
Dozens of the 230 carefully kept manufactured houses, lined up in neat, hillside rows, burned to the ground in the wildfire that covered nearly 4,000 acres in about 12 hours. Residents had just minutes to evacuate.
“I thought I saw it burning on TV last night,” Knapp said as he rushed up the street toward his place.
As he got close, he could only see part of the house. He wondered aloud whether the house had been damaged. Then he saw the front, good as new.
“It’s still there!” he shouted. “As much smoke as this place was putting out, I thought they were all burning. I’ll be damned. I can’t believe it.”
The wildfire started about 11:30 a.m. Thursday near the intersection of Interstate 15 and state Route 76. Almost immediately, the dry, gusty Santa Ana winds carried the flames west across the nearby Rancho Monserate community in Fallbrook and into the mostly rural area of the San Luis Rey River valley.
Not everyone was as fortunate as Knapp.
Evacuations were ordered in parts of Carpinteria and Montecito as the Thomas fire moved into Santa Barbara County’s southern coast.
The Santa Barbara County Fire Department said at least one home was burned.
Nearly 3,000 households and businesses in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties have been impacted by the Thomas fire, which has burned 155,000 acres since Monday, according to Southern California Edison.
The fire continues to threaten transmission lines serving the Santa Barbara area. As of 11:12 a.m., up to 85,000 customers in the Santa Barbara area were experiencing intermittent outages and power surges. In the Ventura area, 3,211 customers were experiencing outages.
Out of the 305 damaged poles, 58 have been replaced, but progress will be determined by weather, terrain and the movement of the fire, the company said on its website.
“When fully assessed, we anticipate the magnitude of the damage to be extensive,” said the utility.
11:15 a.m.: This story has been updated with specific numbers for the Santa Barbara and Ventura areas.
7:05 a.m.: This story has been updated with more customers — 89,017 — experiencing power outages as of Sunday morning.
This story originally published at 4:35 a.m.
A brush fire that ignited in Monrovia on Saturday night prompted evacuations of residents along Norumbega Dr. and a large group of Boy Scouts.
Initial reports suggest the fire broke out near the foothills of the Angeles National Forest, north of the 210 freeway. It’s estimated to have burned three acres.
The evacuees included a group of Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts who were staying at Camp Trask, a campsite in the foothills of the national forest. They were there for a shooting sports weekend.
A member of the group, David Hilton, estimated there were as many as 150 people at the camp, including troop leaders. He said the Scouts learned about the fire from a forest ranger who came to tell them they were all being evacuated.
“The fire is near us but it's down at the bottom of the canyon,” Hilton said. “Everybody's getting out. Looks like we're safe.”
U.S. Forest Service firefighters, who responded along with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, described the blaze as “terrain & fuels-driven.”
At least 46 horses were killed at a thoroughbred training facility during the Lilac wildfire in northern San Diego County, and others remain missing.
Mike Marten, a spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board, said Saturday that the death toll at San Luis Rey Downs could rise. He said the thoroughbred facility in Bonsall accommodates 495 horses and that at least 450 were there when the fire struck on Thursday.
Marten said a small number of horses escaped to the wilderness through a fence that was knocked down and haven’t been located.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday surveyed the devastation in Ventura, the city hardest hit by this week’s firestorms. Brown’s visit comes four days after he declared a state of emergency.
In all, there are six wildfires burning in Southern California. About 8,500 firefighters are battling the fires, which have collectively burned 175,000 acres.
“We’re facing a new reality in this state, where fires threatened people’s lives, their properties, their neighborhoods and billions and billions of dollars. So we have to have the resources to combat the fires,” he told reporters during a news conference at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
The governor thanked firefighters for their efforts and expressed sympathy for residents who had lost their homes and animals, calling it a “horror” and “terrible tragedy for so many people.”
Brown added that climate change may exacerbate the weather conditions that caused the wildfires to explode.
“This is the new normal, and this could be something that happens every year or every few years,” he said. “We’re about to have a firefighting Christmas.”