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Another day of powerful winds expected to fan Thomas fire

Another day of powerful winds expected to fan Thomas fire
Santa Barbara County firefighters snuffing out hot spots from the Thomas fire drag hose down a steep hillside below East Camino Cielo near Montecito. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Powerful winds that have driven the ferocious Thomas fire for more than two weeks are expected to return Wednesday afternoon, testing the progress firefighters have made in recent days against the massive blaze.

The fire has burned 272,000 acres — making it the second-largest California wildfire since the Great Depression — and was 60% contained as of Wednesday morning. However, a new wave of winds and dry conditions will complicate fire fighting efforts.

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Northerly winds of 15 to 30 mph are expected, with gusts up to 50 mph, according to the National Weather Service. In some mountaintop canyons, isolated gusts could hit 60 mph.

“Unfortunately, it continues,” said Joe Sirard, a meteorologist with the weather wervice in Oxnard. “It is getting pretty ridiculous.”

The high winds will blow from north to south, creating the potential for embers from the fire to blow toward homes in Montecito and Santa Barbara.

“There is potential for a flare-up,” Sirard said.

Firefighters have taken advantage of a recent lull in winds to set hillsides on fire to reduce available fuel, hose down vegetation and fell burned trees that present hazards.

“Firefighters have been working hard for the last 3½ days to prep for tomorrow,” said Capt. Steve Concialdi of the Orange County Fire Authority. “We are confident.”

It’s part of the vicious cycle that has kept the Thomas fire raging since it took root in the foothills above Thomas Aquinas College on Dec. 4.

The wildfire has killed two people, including a firefighter, and destroyed 765 single-family homes. Fuel in the area remains critically dry, posing an especially acute danger when the winds pick up.

(Sources: Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, Mapzen, OpenStreetMap)

It has been a dry year across Southern California. Parts of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties haven't seen significant rain since February and relative humidity has been in the single digits, meaning vegetation is ready to ignite.

There is a fire weather warning for Los Angeles County as well. Sirard said if a new fire were to start in these weather conditions, it would spread rapidly.

Sirard said there is no rain forecast for the region over the next seven days.

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