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.
Crews were in place to protect homes should a wind shift send the wildfire toward neighborhoods overnight, but authorities said that's unlikely.
"The fire's burning in open country right now, which is away from homes, which is exactly where we want it," said Capt. Rick Crawford, a Cal Fire spokesman. Even so, he said, "We'll always be in the 'ready, set, go' mode."
Just a day earlier, stronger-than-expected winds kicked up and triggered an epic battle to save homes along the coast. Two homes in the Montecito hills were destroyed and about a dozen structures damaged during Saturday's flare up.
But firefighters were able to protect about a 1,000 structures because of advanced preparations, officials said. Evacuations were also lifted for the Carpinteria area.
As of Sunday evening, the third-largest wildfire in modern California history was at 270,000 acres and 45% contained, officials said.
Fueled by Santa Ana winds, with gusts topping 70 mph early Sunday in some valley and mountain areas, the blaze burned a massive swath from Santa Barbara to Ventura. By late Sunday, winds had dropped down to 3 to 5 mph, with gusts of about 10 mph, Crawford said.
"We're in pretty good shape for the time being," he said.
In Ventura County, firefighters concentrated their forces in the hills above Fillmore where the wildfire stayed within containment lines. Their efforts were hampered during the day by dry conditions combined with low humidity and winds of about 35 mph.
Red flag conditions were forecast in the mountains and valleys of Los Angeles County through Sunday evening as well as parts of Ventura, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Winds are expected to stay calm Monday and Tuesday at 10 to 20 mph, which will "look tranquil" compared with the weekend gusts, said Kathy Hoxsie, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
Those calmer conditions should allow firefighters to focus on more defensive work such as bulldozing fire lines and dropping fire retardant. The humidity levels should also increase during the early part of the week — another help for fire crews, Hoxsie said.
But it will be a short respite, as strong winds and low humidity are expected to return on Wednesday in Santa Barbara County and Thursday in Ventura County, Hoxsie said.
In advance of the weekend flare-up, firefighters smothered portions of the Santa Barbara County hills with hundreds of thousands of gallons of fire retardant to keep embers from igniting spot fires. 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. Hundreds of homes were spared.
"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?"
As the winds began to die down in Santa Barbara early Sunday, fire officials said they were going to take advantage of the moment and extinguish smoldering hot spots in the Montecito area.
Rusty Smith, 57, said he fled his home on Gibraltar Road about 1 a.m. Sunday. He stayed with a friend nearby and set his alarm clock to wake him every 90 minutes so he could see if the flames had reached his house.
But firefighters managed to save Smith's house and about two dozen others in the neighborhood.
"I wasn't worried. You know when things are out of your control," Smith said Sunday afternoon, as he swept debris from the driveway of his neighbor's house. "But we know we were fortunate."
Resident Lucas Merrick returned Sunday around noon to find that his home also had been spared. As helicopters dropped water on smoldering vegetation, Merrick said his hillside property is much more than a home for him and other residents.
"There's a spiritual element," he said. "That's why people decide to live here."
Not all homes were spared. On Sunday, a multimillion-dollar house on Park Hill Lane in the Montecito hills was still burning. From the outside, the Spanish-style structure appeared intact, but the interior was almost completely gutted.
All that remained was smoldering ash.
Despite the loss or damage of some homes in the Montecito hills, fire officials emphasized that more homes were saved than lost.
"This is the worst fire condition I've seen in the last 32 years," said Capt. Dave Zaniboni, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. "It could have been a lot worse. We could have easily lost firefighters or had more homes destroyed. It was a great effort by firefighters."
Orange County Battalion Chief Mike Summers huddled with his team of firefighters gathered in the parking lot of Cold Springs Elementary School to discuss the day's plans. The fire had reached into the backyards of some homes on Saturday, and officials wanted to make sure that they were no longer threatened.
He said his crews would be patrolling along Coyote Road to clean up any hot spots.
Despite the long hours, Summers said his team was in good spirits and well-rested. He's been on the fire for about a week and expects to work through Christmas.
"Many of the firefighters have kids and families waiting at home," he said. "But we are here for the community. Our first priority is the community, and then our second is family waiting back home."
Humboldt firefighter Jake Illiam, who was among the crews working in Montecito, said he was also missing his family. He said his daughter will turn 1 this week.
"Today was her birthday party," he said.
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.
By Saturday afternoon, Santa Barbara County appeared to be in recovery mode as evacuation orders were lifted for areas around Carpinteria.
Times staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.
10:35 p.m.: This article was updated with information about Sunday night's fire fight.
7:00 p.m.: This article was updated with new acreage figures.
5:55 p.m.: This article was updated with new information from fire and weather officials.
5:35 p.m.: This article was updated with new comments from Montecito residents whose homes were spared.
4:00 p.m.: This article was updated with new information from fire officials.
2:35 p.m.: This article was updated with new information about evacuation order being lifted in Carpinteria area.
12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with new details from the scene and comment from Capt. Dave Zaniboni.
11:20 a.m.: This article was updated with new information from the National Weather Service.
10:25 a.m. This article was updated with comments from Battalion Chief Mike Summers.
10:05 a.m.: This article was updated with new information from fire officials.
9 a.m.: This article was updated with new information from fire officials.