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The Thomas fire is now the second largest in modern California history

Firefighters took advantage of light winds in Santa Barbara County late Sunday, mounting an aggressive attack directly on the massive Thomas fire’s western face a day after powerful gusts pushed flames toward homes along the coast.

After a brief respite from the relentless gusts that have driven the deadly Thomas fire for more than two weeks, powerful winds are expected to return, adding to the challenges facing firefighters working to contain the mammoth blaze.

The fire, which began near Santa Paula in the foothills above Thomas Aquinas College on Dec. 4, has burned through 272,000 acres as of Tuesday evening, making it the second-largest wildfire in modern California history.

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

On Tuesday, the Thomas fire surpassed the lightning-sparked Rush fire, which burned 271,911 acres in Lassen County in 2012.

The Thomas fire was 55% contained, and fire officials do not anticipate full containment until Jan. 8, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Firefighters have tried to take advantage of weaker winds Monday and that were forecast for Tuesday. The Ventura County Fire Department on Tuesday morning reported "another productive day" Monday, but with shifting winds on the mountaintops.

Forecasters predict a new blast of Santa Barbara's notorious sundowner winds, which blow down the canyons to the coast, late Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning. The winds could create crucial fire conditions for the western side of the blaze in southern Santa Barbara County.

Santa Barbara County firefighters stand on Gibraltar Ridge, located above Santa Barbara and Montecito, as a water drop is made on the Thomas fire on Monday.
Santa Barbara County firefighters stand on Gibraltar Ridge, located above Santa Barbara and Montecito, as a water drop is made on the Thomas fire on Monday. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Northerly gusts will likely exceed 40 mph, with isolated gusts of up to 60 mph possible, according to the National Weather Service.

The Santa Barbara County side of the fire will be affected by the strong winds first, on Wednesday afternoon and evening. Winds will then pick up on the Ventura County side Wednesday night and Thursday morning, said Joe Sirard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

While winds pick up in Ventura County, they will decrease in Santa Barbara County, he said.

"It is a very large fire, so you're going to have different wind effects over different parts of the fire," Sirard said.

High fire danger will exist in Los Angeles County this week as well, he said.

The winds should die down a bit Friday, Sirard said, but another round will return Saturday night and Sunday.

Sirard said the Thomas fire had burned a remote automatic weather station in the Montecito hills. The instruments provided data about wind speed, air and soil temperature, and humidity.

There was minimal fire activity overnight Monday, allowing fire crews to strengthen their containment lines, according to Cal Fire. Fuel in the area remains critically dry, posing an especially acute danger when the winds pick up.

Firefighters are "not quite done" on the southern edge of Montecito, where the fire pushed up against 1,300 homes and damaged 15, said Rudy Evenson, a spokesman for the multi-agency firefighting effort.

Crews on Tuesday were planning to burn a section of Los Padres National Forest in an attempt to further contain the fire, he said.

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"We want to manage it as lightly as we can," Evenson said.

Helicopter water drops were planned in an area near Fillmore called Bear Heaven. The threat to the city of Fillmore has decreased because firefighters were able to complete a control line from the town to Devil's Gate, fire officials said.

On the fire's north and east sides, it continues to burn farther into the Matilija and Sespe wilderness and toward the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, according to Cal Fire.

As the blaze becomes more contained, fire departments from other jurisdictions will start traveling home, Evenson said.

"It's drastically ramping down right now," he said. "It's nowhere near the scale that it's been the past two weeks."

Some evacuation orders were being lifted in Carpinteria and Montecito.

Along Coast Village Road in Montecito, businesspeople were working to reopen shops and restaurants that had been closed since Saturday morning, when a mandatory evacuation was ordered. The order was lifted at 6 a.m. Tuesday.

Some merchants worried that closures during the peak holiday season could seriously hurt their profits for the year.

"It's awful," said Jason Herrick, co-owner of the Liquor and Wine Grotto. The prolonged fires have resulted in his worst month for sales since December 2009, he said.

"You didn't even see blue skies for 10 days," he said.

Herrick has owned the wine shop for nearly nine years and has been through wildfires before, but never one this long.

"I don't think everyone can sustain," Herrick said of other business owners.

At Lucky's, a steakhouse on the same street, employees wearing masks were working to clear ash from the patio. Larry Nobles, the restaurant's wine director, said he could see the fire from the restaurant's host stand a few days ago.

"It looked like Armageddon coming at you," he said. "Everybody had something packed."

Nobles was cautious about reopening the restaurant only to possibly have to close it again because of the expected return of the winds Wednesday.

"Sounds like they've got it contained, but you never know," he said.

Twitter: @nicolesantacruz

Twitter: @haileybranson

Santa Cruz reported from Montecito, and Branson-Potts reported from Los Angeles.

UPDATES:

9:25 p.m.: This article was updated with an increased containment figure.

6:25 p.m.: This article was updated to note that the fire is the second largest in modern California history.

12:15 p.m.: This article was updated with evacuation orders being lifted in Carpinteria and Montecito.

9:35 a.m.: This article was updated with new information from spokesman Rudy Evenson.

This article was originally published at 8:45 a.m.

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