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The fury of monster fire leaves residents no choice but to flee

The Thomas fire bears down on homes in Montecito on Saturday.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Resident Darren Caesar stood off the shoulder of Highway 192 next to the Montecito Fire Station early Saturday and pointed to a long row of firetrucks and tankers parked nearby.

“Look at how many firefighting assets they have. I trust that they can do everything they can to protect structures,” said Caesar, who was preparing to evacuate with his wife and three daughters. “But it’s the wind. Nobody can fight the wind.”

As feared, the so-called sundowner winds kicked up early Saturday as the massive Thomas fire took aim at the hills above Montecito, with some wind gusts reported up to 65 mph, prompting new evacuation orders for parts of Santa Barbara County.

The winds pushed south toward the coast — removing moisture along the way — and presenting weary firefighters with one of their biggest challenges since the Thomas fire roared back to life a week ago, officials said.

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Late Saturday morning, the fire had moved down from the mountains and was threatening multimillion-dollar homes in the foothills, said David Zaniboni, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. Wind gusts of up to 65 mph blasted south down along San Ysidro Creek 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.”

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 269,000 acres and killed two people, including a firefighter, and destroyed more than 1,000 structures and damaged hundreds more.

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Containment remains at 40%, officials said.

On Saturday, a portion of the northbound 101 Freeway into Santa Barbara was closed to traffic as evacuation orders were expanded in areas in and around Montecito and Summerland. 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 fire trucks awaited orders with their engines running in the parking lots of public schools, churches and other designated safety zones. Several fire engines were also sent up to the historic San Ysidro Ranch to protect structures.

The northerly offshore winds were blowing steadily 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 wind was expected to gradually subside in Santa Barbara County Saturday evening, he said.

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As winds died down late in the afternoon, firefighters scrambled to try to stop the flames from advancing closer to 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 was 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.”

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Silva 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 and to keep flames at bay, officials said.

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Some hillsides had been 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 shifted their focus to Ventura County, where the northern edge of the fire was moving east and red flag conditions were expected to remain in place until Sunday night, officials said. Winds could gust up to 55 mph.

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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 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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But Johnson remained optimistic Saturday that firefighters would prevail. 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.”

joseph.serna@latimes.com

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melissa.etehad@latimes.com


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