The massive Thomas fire, which has burned through Ventura County for over a week and entered Santa Barbara County over the weekend, has now scorched 234,200 acres and is 20% contained, fire officials said Tuesday.
The fire, which began Dec. 4, grew about 2,500 acres overnight as gusting winds pushed the flames down the slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains and closer to homes in Montecito, a wealthy enclave in Santa Barbara County. Fire crews saved some mountainside homes from flames that tore through nearby Toro and Romero canyons, and specially outfitted helicopters dumped water through the night.
So far, 2.4 million gallons of water and 1.2 million gallons of fire retardant have been used to fight the Thomas fire, the fifth largest in state history.
The winds in Carpinteria were calm enough that firefighters intentionally set fire to some brush near homes to get rid of fuel that could feed an uncontrolled blaze if winds pick up later this week.
The burn operation led to dramatic flames engulfing the hills behind Carpinteria High School on Monday night.
"Firefighters can burn that fuel on their own terms," said Matthew Chambers, an engineer with the Sequoia National Forest and a public information officer on the Thomas fire.
He said hand crews and bulldozers are focusing on digging fire lines around the western front of the fire near Montecito.
Robin Willis wasn't as calm about the incoming Thomas fire as her older brother. While her brother fielded phone calls and casually sprayed water on plants and trees at his El Bosque Drive residence in Montecito, Willis was across the street at her own home working at a frantic pace.
"They told me soaking under the eaves really helps," said Willis, 68, as she directed a high-pressured stream of water from her garden hose to the underside of her backyard patio beams. "I'm going to get everything as wet as possible, and I don't care how wet I get."
Willis and her brother, Charles Perkins, 70, live in the shadow of the Santa Ynez Mountains, where for a week the Thomas fire has slowly drawn nearer. On Monday, firefighters patrolled the roads above them, until air tankers swooped by and colored the south-facing hills red with fire retardant.
Willis lives in a mandatory evacuation zone, but neither she nor her brother plans on leaving.
"Our family has been here since the 1920s," Willis said. "This is family, our genealogy. This is our roots."
When a neighbor came by to talk, his voice trembled with emotion. He and Willis compared notes on the fire history in the area and rumors of looters.
Apparently, a caretaker at La Casa de Maria, an interfaith retreat center just up the road, chased off an intruder on Monday, the neighbor said. He heard that firefighters were letting the Thomas fire reach the old burn scars of previous blazes in hopes it would slow the fire's progress.
The neighbor said his biggest fear was his towering oaks igniting from a wayward ember then setting ablaze his home, which is made of wood. Willis reassured him that she'd help wet his house and the one next door just in case.
When the neighbor left, Willis returned to her watering. She'll only leave if firefighters come knocking, she said.
"It's your home. You do what you can do. If things happen where it doesn't survive, you've got a conscience that you've done your best," she said.
Perkins, her brother, was more sanguine about the situation. He and his wife spent Monday afternoon clearing out their home of valuable paintings and furniture. His eyes were bloodshot from the smoky air and the 14-hour drive from his cattle ranch on the Oregon border. He hadn't had much sleep.
Perkins said he had been monitoring the Thomas fire since it ignited in Ventura County more than a week ago. He never thought it would reach the hills above Montecito, but as it got closer, he decided to head down to clear out the property and reassure his wife, who was waiting for him.
He had tried to charter a plane, but there was none available, he said, so he had to make the drive late Sunday. He wanted to stay there Monday night but opted to leave after speaking with firefighters who were going door to door to see who the holdouts were.
"I promised them I wouldn't be stupid," he chuckled. He and his brother-in-law spent Tuesday morning setting up a network of sprinklers on the edge of his property and drenching the plants.
A short drive uphill and east of Willis' home, crews with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection were stationed on dirt roads, trail heads and the stone driveways of wealthy mansions. The Thomas fire moved closer to Montecito homes overnight, and now the roads were colored with flame retardant dropped Monday by air tankers.
Firefighters sped along the winding passes in ATVs, while others trekked up the roads on foot to scout out where the fire was moving. The blaze was burning up the backside of the canyons only a ridge or two away Tuesday morning, firefighters said.
Winds are expected to stay calm Tuesday, but weak sundowner winds that blow downhill toward the ocean are expected Friday, said Chambers, the public information officer.
The spread of the flames slowed Monday as winds calmed and the fire reached areas that had burned about a decade ago, reducing the available fuel. Winds are expected to slow, at least on the Ventura side, again on Tuesday and stay about the same for Santa Barbara County, according to forecasters.
Firefighters have been taking advantage of the calmer winds this week, using aircraft to make drops and working on fire lines. While the blaze grew by more than 50,000 acres Sunday, chewing through steep slopes and canyons that haven't burned for decade, it seemed to slow as firefighters began to gain a handle on the fire.
For Tuesday, Santa Barbara is looking at north to northeast winds sustained 8 to 15 mph, gusting up to 25 mph in the ridge tops. For the valleys, north to northeast winds of 4 to 8 mph were forecast, gusting up 15 mph.
On the Ventura side, winds will be northeast to east, sustained at 12 to 20 mph and gusting up to 30 mph. On Monday, Ventura had gusts up to 40 mph, and in the valleys, winds were 8 to 15 mph, gusting to 25 mph.
"Ventura went down quite a bit," said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service. "It went down like 10 on the gusts. ...Ten miles an hour, that's a lot — especially if they're out there fighting the fires."
Winds are likely to decline further Wednesday, Seto said.
12:50 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from residents in Montecito.