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‘They’ll have a few good days’: Forecasters say weaker winds could aid fight against Thomas fire

Humboldt County firefighters Lonnie Risling, left, and Jimmy McHaffie spray down smoldering fire beneath the rubble of a home that was destroyed by the Thomas fire in Montecito on Sunday.
Humboldt County firefighters Lonnie Risling, left, and Jimmy McHaffie spray down smoldering fire beneath the rubble of a home that was destroyed by the Thomas fire in Montecito on Sunday.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The howling winds that have fanned the deadly Thomas fire quieted for the first time in almost two weeks Monday, giving firefighters a brief opportunity to consolidate hard-fought gains and reflect on the extraordinary nature of the blaze.

The rapid spread of the blaze, which took root in the foothills near Thomas Aquinas College on Dec. 4, has shocked veteran firefighters, and remains on track to become California’s largest ever wildfire.

“A lot of guys around here would tell you the same thing. We’ve been firefighters for decades and have never seen anything like this,” said Antonio Negrete, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and a 24-year veteran.

Cal Fire officials said Monday that they are not expecting full containment of the blaze until Jan. 7.

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At a morning briefing at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, firefighters said they were working three-week shifts, and many know they’ll be working on Christmas Day.

As of Monday morning, the Thomas fire had burned 270,500 acres across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and was only 45% contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Cal Fire officials said the amount of resources and personnel dedicated to fighting the Thomas fire is the greatest in modern California history. Some 8,452 firefighters were battling the flames, and the cost to fight the fire has exceeded $130 million.

Forecasters said that weaker winds, cooler temperatures and higher humidity early this week should help with the fire fight.

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Winds throughout the region were expected to diminish, and weather conditions are looking relatively tranquil through Wednesday afternoon, said Dave Bruno, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

“They’ll have a few good days to work on it,” Bruno said of firefighters battling the conflagration. “It’s one of the longest respites we’ve had. It’s been pretty relentless since the 2nd of December.”

On Sunday morning, wind gusts topped 70 mph in mountain areas in the fire zone and 50 mph on the Ventura County coast. But they calmed as the day wore on, allowing fire crews to mop up hot spots and remove dry vegetation by the homes they’d saved in Montecito.

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Weak northeast winds prevailed across the fire Sunday night and were expected to shift to a south to southwest direction by Monday afternoon, according to Cal Fire. Slower gusts and cooler temperatures would allow for “favorable firefighting efforts,” fire officials said.

Cool onshore winds will help the fire back up on itself, Negrete said.

Areas of concern for firefighters include the coastal communities of Santa Barbara, Summerland and Montecito, as well as the Matilija Wilderness and Rose Valley, according to Cal Fire. On the eastern side of the fire, the threat continues for Fillmore in Ventura County.

Fire crews on Monday were expected to focus on Fillmore. Fire activity has decreased in that area, but firefighters want to use the favorable wind conditions to their advantage there, Negrete said. Crews will try to protect homes and avocado ranches there and will have support from water-dropping helicopters.

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The air is expected to remain dry on Monday, but a more extensive onshore flow Tuesday is expected to increase humidity levels along the coast, according to the weather service.

Alameda County firefighters Robert Groh, left, and Darryn Murphy clear brush as they work in the Santa Ynez Mountains on Sunday.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )

The respite, however, will be brief, Bruno said.

A weak upper-level low-pressure system is expected to move through the region on Wednesday, bringing gusty winds behind it, Bruno said.

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“Once the front moves through, strong northwest to north winds will develop across Santa Barbara County late Wednesday afternoon and night,” Bruno said. “Those winds will transition to more typical Santa Ana winds that would affect L.A. and Ventura counties on Thursday.”

The system could bring some minor showers to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, but “nothing that will help the fire in the least,” Bruno said.

“It’ll just be a few sprinkles, some spitting,” he said. “Firefighters will be much better served by the cooler weather beforehand.”

There is no other rain in sight through at least Christmas, thanks to a persistent high-pressure system over the western U.S., Bruno said.

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“It is abnormal,” he said. “Normally, we start getting rain on a regular basis by November. We usually get a good storm by now. This is kind of ridiculous.”

In Santa Barbara County, firefighters planned to work hard over the next few days to contain the fire near Montecito before wind gusts of up to 50 mph return on Wednesday, said Bill Murphy, a Cal Fire spokesman. If firefighters are successful, they will significantly reduce the risk to homes in the area, he said.

“We’re dedicating a lot of resources in Montecito,” he said. “We feel confident that we’ll have most work done before Wednesday.

The Thomas fire as of Monday morning had destroyed 1,024 structures and damaged 250 more. An additional 18,000 structures remain threatened.

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Los Angeles Fire Dept. Capt. Rick Crawford said he’s battled extreme fires during his 28 years as a firefighter, but the Thomas fire stands out as the fiercest he’s ever encountered.

Crawford said he had never seen so many people mobilized on a wildfire. The Thomas fire, he said, still poses an enormous threat to Southern California.

“Just because you don’t see the flames doesn’t mean there’s no threat,” Crawford said. “We might be at a lull, but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent.”

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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Twitter: @haileybranson


UPDATES:

11:50 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details from Cal Fire.

8:30 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about Monday’s firefight from Cal Fire officials.

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This article was originally published at 7:50 a.m.


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