Thousands of firefighters battling the massive Thomas fire braced for the return of powerful winds Friday that could again endanger communities, even as they mourned the death of a colleague killed on the fire lines.
Ten days after it broke out, the Thomas fire on Thursday became the fourth-largest in the state's modern history, consuming nearly 250,000 acres and destroying hundreds of homes.
Firefighters have taken advantage of a two-day lull in winds to increase containment to 35%, but the blaze has continued a march north from Ventura and Santa Paula along the coast of Santa Barbara County.
Officials also set some controlled backfires in the hills above Montecito, hoping to burn off brush that would serve as fuel if the Thomas fire got into the area.
Forecasters predict a new blast of powerful sundowner winds on Friday, which could push the fire from the mountains back into the direction of homes. Another round of Santa Ana winds are expected Saturday and Sunday.
"Every day that goes by the fuels get drier and drier and drier," said Tim Chavez, a battalion chief and fire behavior analyst with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "We have really bad weather coming. It is going to be a very challenging few days."
The mountains north of the coast produce notoriously unpredictable and dangerous conditions for firefighters, Chavez said. In the Matilija wilderness, which straddles the border between the two counties, observers saw 50-foot flames backing down a hillside overnight, he said. It's unusual to see flames that tall working their way down a mountain, officials said.
Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service, added that the winds will be especially powerful in mountain areas and will "really start blowing the fire around again."
"What it does is carry the embers farther down and can create more fires," he said.
On Sunday, winds are expected to return to offshore conditions, Seto said.
Firefighters braced for the winds on a day of loss.
Ken Pimlott, the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, announced that apparatus engineer Cory Iverson, 32, died on the fire lines Thursday.
Iverson was assigned to the blaze as a part of a strike team from Cal Fire's San Diego unit. He started with Cal Fire in 2009. He is survived by his wife, Ashley, and their 2-year-old daughter, Evie. The family is expecting a second daughter this spring.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with Cory's family and all of his friends and co-workers throughout the department and the fire service," Pimlott said.
He said an accident review team would investigate the circumstances of Iverson's death
"While we continue to process this tragic loss, we must keep our focus on the fire. The fire fight in front of us continues to go on," Pimlott said. "The communities we are protecting are depending on us, and we will not fail."
The Thomas fire has now surpassed the size of the monstrous Zaca fire, which scorched Santa Barbara County in 2007, said Dave Zaniboni, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
Firefighters hope the Zaca burn scar will help them fight the Thomas fire's growth along its western edge.
The state of California began keeping records of wildfire acreage in 1932. Though other large fires raged on the West Coast before then, those records are less reliable, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The Thomas fire has destroyed more than 900 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties since it began Dec. 4 near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula. In its first day, the fire spread southwest, toward Ventura, and northwest, eventually hugging Ojai before pushing to the Santa Barbara coast.
Virginia Pesola, 70, of Santa Paula was found dead in a car that had been involved in a crash last week along an evacuation route in a burn area of the Thomas fire in Ventura County. According to the county medical examiner, Pesola's cause of death was blunt-force trauma with smoke inhalation and thermal injuries.