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Thomas fire becomes largest wildfire on record in California

Thomas fire becomes largest wildfire on record in California
Firefighters battle the Thomas fire. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The Thomas fire on Friday became California’s largest wildfire on record, burning 273,400 acres during its destructive march across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

The fire eclipsed the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County, which burned 273,246 acres.

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The milestone reaffirmed 2017 as the most destructive fire season ever in the state. In October, a series of fires in wine country burned more than 10,000 homes and killed more than 40 people.

Those blazes, along with the Thomas fire, were fueled by dry conditions and intense winds.

Despite its size, the Thomas fire has been less destructive than either the wine-country fires or the Cedar fire, which destroyed 2,820 structures and killed 15 people.

The Thomas fire has claimed just over 1,000 structures since it started on Dec. 4, and San Diego fire engineer Cory Iverson died fighting the blaze last week.

Sources: USGS, Cal Fire, Santa Barbara County
Sources: USGS, Cal Fire, Santa Barbara County (Raoul Rañoa/@latimesgraphics)

The fire earned its place in history after calming winds and even a bit of rain helped firefighters gain the upper hand.

The fire consumed tens of thousands of acres a day in its first week but is now nibbling up vegetation at a relatively slow pace — 288 acres on Wednesday, 770 on Thursday.

The Thomas fire broke out in the foothills above Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula on Dec. 4. Fueled by 50-mph winds, the fire swept into downtown Ventura, burning hundreds of homes that first morning.

For the next two weeks, the fire ebbed and flowed with the winds. It swept into the Ojai Valley but spared the resort town. Then it moved up the southern Santa Barbara County coast, where firefighters made a stand in the hills above Montecito.

Despite heavy winds, the fire only destroyed a few homes — and officials said hundreds of others were saved.

The Thomas fire was by far the largest of a series of wildfires in December that destroyed homes in Bel-Air, northern San Diego County and the hills above Sylmar and Lake View Terrace. Officials said powerful Santa Ana winds, coupled with extremely dry conditions and a lack of rain all autumn, set the stage for the firestorm.

Any new growth on the Thomas fire will probably be due to controlled burns by firefighters.

“The main fire itself will not have any growth,” said Capt. Brandon Vaccaro of the California City Fire Department. “Any growth that we see or is reflected in the acreage will be based on the control burns.”

Firefighters set the speed of the burn, he said, using bulldozers, fire engines and hand tools. A train of personnel moves along, setting the fire to ensure no fire jumps the control line or gets out of hand, Vaccaro said.

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The improving conditions allowed officials to lift many evacuation orders on Thursday.

Cal Fire’s list of the worst fires in California history dates back to the 1930s (in fact, the Matilija fire of 1932 was Number 6 on the list and also burned through Ventura County).

That list, however, does not include what some consider to be California’s largest known wildfire — the 1889 Santiago Canyon fire, which scorched parts of Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties.

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