Gusty Santa Ana winds and bone-dry conditions continued to stoke major wildfires in Southern California on Thursday as Ventura County fire officials said the battle there could last well over a week.
By Thursday evening, the Thomas fire had consumed 115,000 acres, destroyed 427 structures in Ventura and damaged at least 85 more, authorities said. An additional 12 structures were destroyed in unincorporated areas of Ventura County.
As the blaze intruded on Santa Barbara County, residents living in Carpinteria, Summerland and other nearby coastal communities were told to prepare to evacuate, even in areas under voluntary evacuation orders.
The Thomas fire has been burning fast, at one point moving nine miles in 12 hours, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
“We’re trying to get the word out to everybody that lives along the coast that they really need to start thinking about [evacuating] right now,” Brown said. “Make sure your car’s gassed up. Make sure your irreplaceable documents, photographs, all that stuff, box it up. Even if you don’t load your car up, just have it ready to go.”
Authorities said the fight could last a couple of weeks.
“Until the wind stops blowing, there’s really not a lot we can do as far as controlling the perimeter,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said as crews battled flames for the third day.
That grim outlook came just hours after authorities said they discovered the body of a woman in a burn area, and after heavy winds prompted residents to flee the coastal community of Faria Beach. As smoke billowed overhead and palm trees burned, a police officer drove through the settlement with a megaphone blaring warnings: “Mandatory evacuation,” and, “Please go the other way, the road is closed.”
In Ojai, 40 mph winds pushed flames to within a mile of the city.
“We are mounting an aggressive aerial assault,” Ventura County Fire Capt. Robert Welsbie said as he observed the flames from Ojai. “The fire is suddenly widespread due to the velocity of erratic winds.”
The Thomas fire was one of a half-dozen wildfires burning in Ventura, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties Thursday.
Though it is not rare for Santa Ana winds to blow this time of year, weather experts say it’s unusual for them to be combined with such dry conditions.
With relative humidity in the single digits along the coastal mountains, the air is the driest it’s been here in recorded history, said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain.
“The [relative] humidities right now along the coast are much drier than what you’d normally see in the interior desert in the summertime,” Swain said. “Once you get down to 1% or 2%, you’re down almost as low as is physically possible.”
Firefighters are concerned that the Thomas fire will push into Santa Barbara County and threaten the city of Carpinteria, said Ventura County fire spokesman Rich Macklin.
“We’re going to start moving with it,” Macklin said of the flames, adding that about 2,000 firefighters are battling the blaze.
Crews are concerned about erratic winds near the water that are reaching between 30 and 40 mph, he said, with gusts of 45 to 50 mph.
As he spoke, plumes of smoke shifted toward the ocean, obscuring visibility so badly that it was difficult to see a few hundred feet ahead. Distant booms went off in the distance — what Macklin attributed to “a tank of something releasing.”
The National Weather Service predicted winds of 28 to 35 mph with gusts up to 50 mph in the Faria Beach area until 5 or 6 p.m., meteorologist Todd Hall said.
“If they get through the afternoon portion, it’ll start turning around,” Hall said. A mild onshore breeze could help firefighters battle flames at Faria Beach on Thursday night, he said, but the rest of Southern California can expect sustained Santa Ana winds for the rest of the day.
Authorities also urged residents to evacuate forested areas near Ojai, at the wildfire’s northern front.
There, tornadoes of flame climbed the slopes of a remote box canyon that Jayson Kaufman calls home. To the chagrin of Ventura sheriff’s deputies who issued a mandatory evacuation order the previous night, Kaufman was among 15 to 20 Matilija Canyon dwellers who refused to leave their rustic cabins and geodesic domes tucked in dry brush.
“We’re monitoring the situation — and the clarity of the air — closely,” Kaufman said, eyeing clouds of smoke filling the skies on both ends of the densely forested canyon. “This morning, the sky was super clear until about 10 a.m. Now, we’re playing it by ear.”
That kind of talk rankled authorities, who were concerned about the status of the holdouts but unable to divert equipment and firefighters into the 5-mile-long canyon early Thursday morning because Highway 33 north of Ojai was strewn with downed power lines, telephone poles and boulders.
It also worried other Matilija Canyon residents who had heeded the evacuation order but could not check the status of the holdouts because communications systems were not working.
“I left the canyon almost immediately after sheriff’s deputies banged on our door and told us to get out,” said Michael Kampman, 31, among a half-dozen people gathered at a roadblock down mountain, awaiting word of the status of their neighbors. “I know several people who stayed behind.”
A woman’s body was found Wednesday night at the site of a car accident on Wheeler Canyon Road. The cause of death and the woman’s identity have not been determined, Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Donoghue said.
Throughout Southern California, winds that officials feared would blow over trees, knock down power lines and push fires closer to endangered communities were not as strong as anticipated Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the weather service said.
But the winds were still dangerous and erratic, and powerful enough to drive major fires in the area.
“A lot of these signals that we look at are not quite as impressive as we’d seen earlier,” said meteorologist David Sweet. “Gusts of 80 mph are now gusts of 60 to 65 mph. It’s not that much of a difference, but I guess anything downward is a good thing.”
In Sylmar, where the Creek fire is burning, 12,605 acres had been destroyed and the blaze was 10% contained by Thursday morning. Authorities have confirmed 15 structures destroyed and another 15 damaged, with 2,500 structures still threatened. There are 110,000 people evacuated because of the fire, Los Angeles Fire Capt. Branden Silverman said.
Two firefighters have been hospitalized after battling the Creek fire, Silverman said — one was injured while operating a dozer and the other when a propane tank exploded. Both are expected to recover.
The Creek fire ignited in the Angeles National Forest around 3:45 a.m. Tuesday, then Santa Ana winds pushed it west, Silverman said.
“Firefighters are challenged by high winds, poor access and steep, rugged terrain,” said a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection report.
There are still homes at risk outside the active fire area, said Nathan Judy, an information officer with the Angeles National Forest.
“If that fire does hop our containment lines, there are homes in the area, in the west-southside area,” Judy said. “So we’re going to be keeping an eye very close on that this afternoon to make sure that the wind doesn’t blow those embers into those homes.”
The Skirball fire in Bel-Air, which has destroyed four homes and damaged 11 others, remained at 475 acres with 20% containment as of late Thursday morning. Everyone in the 3.2-square-mile evacuation zone — about 700 homes — was still being told to stay away, said L.A. fire spokesman Peter Sanders.
“If you are a developer in the fire zone in Bel-Air, get the hell out and don’t come back” until evacuations are lifted, said Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, adding that construction crews should not be working right now.
Firefighting efforts Thursday focused on preventing the blaze from jumping the 405 Freeway toward the Getty Center and Brentwood, as Santa Ana winds have the potential to push the fire west.
Everyone in those areas should be ready to evacuate, officials said. Overnight and into the morning, firefighters focused on continuing to establish a containment line around the fire and putting out hot spots within the burn area.
“The forward progress of the fire has been stopped,” Sanders said. “The wind is a big concern for today.”
On the other side of the 405, residents west of the fire were ready to evacuate if needed but thankful the winds were weaker than expected.
As a gust blew dried leaves into the air in Brentwood, Bob Greer, 81, opened the trunk of his white Toyota.
It was filled with suitcases, photographs, documents and medication. “The one thing you cannot replace are photographs,” he said.
Greer and his wife both served in the Air Force. Greer retired 15 years ago.
“I’m ready to go in a minute if we need to evacuate,” he said. “When you’re ready, you’re not scared.”