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Hundreds of homes in Montecito threatened as winds push Thomas fire toward coast; new evacuations

The so-called sundowner winds are pushing south from the mountains down to the coast — removing moisture along the way — and are expected to present firefighters in Santa Barbara County with their biggest challenge since the Thomas fire roared back to life a week ago, officials said.

New evacuation orders were issued in Santa Barbara County on Saturday as the massive Thomas fire took aim at the hills above Montecito, with some wind gusts reported up to 65 mph.

The so-called sundowner winds pushed south from the mountains down to the coast — removing moisture along the way — and presented firefighters in Santa Barbara County with their biggest challenge since the Thomas fire roared back to life a week ago, officials said.

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“When the sundowners surface in that area and the fire starts running down slopes, you are not going to stop it,” Mark Brown, an operations section chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told reporters at a Saturday morning news briefing. “And we are not going to stand in front of it and put firefighters in untenable situations.”

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

A significant boost in the humidity overnight Friday did virtually nothing to help, fire behavior analyst Tim Chavez told firefighters.

“One of the other characteristics of the strong downslope winds is it rapidly and abruptly scours the marine layer out of the coastal plain,” Chavez said.

One fire commander told crews to “plan on getting your … kicked” Saturday.

The Thomas fire is now the third largest fire in California’s history since accurate recording began in 1932. The wildfire, which started in Ventura County on Dec. 4, has scorched 267,500 acres and killed two people, including a firefighter. It has also destroyed more than 1,000 structures and damaged hundreds more.

A portion of the northbound 101 Freeway into Santa Barbara was closed to traffic Saturday as evacuation orders were expanded in areas in and around Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria. About 1,600 Santa Barbara County residents are under mandatory evacuation orders, while 34,000 residents in the fire zone remain under voluntary evacuation.

Small platoons of firetrucks awaited orders with their engines running in the parking lots of public schools, churches and other designated safety zones in the Montecito area. Several fire engines were dispatched to the historic San Ysidro Ranch to protect structures.

By late Saturday morning, the Thomas fire had moved down from the mountains above Montecito and was now surrounding homes in the foothills, said David Zaniboni, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

“There’s been fire all around structures just north of us just above Cold Springs Road and the Westmont College area,” Zaniboni said. “Crews have been in and around structures and just doing structure defense where they can.”

Wind gusts of up to 65 mph blasted south down the San Ysidro Creek drainage directly into Montecito.

‘Unfortunately they under-predicted this one,” Zaniboni said. “We weren’t expecting this severe of a wind event and we’re certainly getting the worst...This fire is two weeks old and here we are battling it like it just started again this morning.”

Resident Darren Caesar stood off the shoulder of Highway 192 next to the Montecito Fire Station and pointed to a row of firetrucks and tankers parked about 50 yards away. Caesar, his wife, and two of his three daughters were planning to evacuate, he said.

“Look at how many firefighting assets they have. I know what they’re doing. I trust that they can do everything they can to protect the structures,” he said. “But it’s the wind. Nobody can fight the wind.”

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The northerly offshore winds are blowing steady at an overall 29 mph and could drive the fire all the way to the coast, said Tom Fisher, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. The winds were expected to gradually subside after 6 p.m. in Santa Barbara County, he said.

Late Saturday afternoon, firefighters in Montecito took advantage when winds died to stop the flames from advancing closer to multimillion dollar homes along East Mountain Drive. Firefighters were spread out along the narrow streets and sprayed water over brush and trees considered “hot spots,” as rocks and boulders tumbled down the mountain.

David Silva, a firefighter with the San Bernardino Fire Department, pointed to the green brush behind him that hadn’t yet burned as members of his crew sprayed water onto burning embers. He said he is worried about the winds picking up Saturday night.

“The crazy weather makes it difficult to predict where the fire is going,” he said. “We will be here all night.”

He said helicopters and airplanes didn’t have a chance Saturday to dump fire retardant or water in the area because of low visibility and unpredictable wind.

“We were hoping it’d be over by Christmas,” he said of the fire, “but now it looks like we will be here a while.”

Firefighters had smothered portions of the Santa Barbara hills with hundreds of thousands of gallons of fire retardant in an attempt to keep embers from igniting spot fires, officials said. Some hillsides were intentionally denuded above Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria, including in Romero and Toro canyons, to limit the potential damage.

Santa Barbara County Fire Division Chief Martin Johnson told reporters Saturday night that the aggressive prevention measures had paid off. No homes were lost during the day.

"Earlier this evening I was asked the question, how many structures did we lose today?" Johnson said. "That's the wrong question to ask. The question to ask is, how many did we save today?"

Late Saturday, fire crews were expected to shift their focus to Ventura County, where the northern edge of the fire was moving east and red flag conditions are expected to remain in place until Sunday night, officials said. Winds could gust up to 55 mph.

Red flag conditions were forecast in the mountains and valleys of Los Angeles counties through Sunday evening as well as parts of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The Thomas fire began Dec. 4 in Santa Paula near Thomas Aquinas College. In its first day, the blaze spread southwest, toward Ventura, and northwest, eventually hugging — and sparing — Ojai before pushing to the Santa Barbara County coast.

The Thomas fire began Dec. 4 in Santa Paula near Thomas Aquinas College. In its first day, the blaze spread southwest, toward Ventura, and northwest, eventually hugging — and sparing — Ojai before pushing to the Santa Barbara County coast.

The fire is so large that its eastern and western fronts are influenced by entirely different wind patterns and terrain. In many ways, it’s as if firefighters are battling two separate fires some 40 miles apart.

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Firefighters are worried that gusts Saturday will fuel the fire's spread into a canyon containing San Ysidro Creek directly south into the community of Montecito in Santa Barbara County. The red area indicates the area that has burned.
Firefighters are worried that gusts Saturday will fuel the fire's spread into a canyon containing San Ysidro Creek directly south into the community of Montecito in Santa Barbara County. The red area indicates the area that has burned. (Cal Fire / Google Maps)

But Johnson remained optimistic Saturday that firefighters would prevail in their fight. Fire officials said that 8,300 fire personnel have been mobilized to fight the Thomas Fire— the largest mobilization of fire crews to fight any wildfire in California history. Firefighting costs so far stand at $110 million.

"Earlier this week I referred to this fire as a beast - and it's a monster. We all recognize that," Johnson said. "But we will kill it. The team behind me, the men and women on the field, I have no doubt. They will take care of business and we will put this fire out."

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