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Crews saved hundreds of homes in epic battle against wind and fire. But two families returned to rubble

Crews saved hundreds of homes in epic battle against wind and fire. But two families returned to rubble
Michael and Sonia Behrman of Montecito, Calif., take one last look at their home, which was destroyed by the Thomas fire, before packing up and leaving for the night. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Every morning and every night during her family vacation in snowy Colorado, Sonia Behrman pulled up the live security footage of her Montecito home.

Sometimes she’d see a handful of firefighters, with hoses, moving about. Other times, a firetruck parked in the driveway. In every stream for seven days, her home was still standing.

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But on Saturday morning, the feed on her cellphone screen cut out.

Either their internet went out, her husband said, or their house burned down.

The Behrmans learned Sunday morning that it was the latter. That despite a heroic battle by firefighters that left more than a thousand homes unscathed by the relentless Thomas fire, their large hillside residence was reduced to charred walls and piles of rubble.

“My whole inside just went numb,” Behrman, 39, said of receiving a text from her stepson, who saw their home on the news. “My sister had to sit me on the couch. I felt like I was going to faint.”

Despite her family’s heartbreak, the destruction in Montecito over the weekend was relatively light, a testament to days of preparation by firefighters bracing for powerful winds that sent the blaze raging through the hills of the picturesque coastal town. Just two homes were destroyed, and seven others damaged.

“It could have been a lot worse,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Dave Zaniboni. “We could have easily lost firefighters or had more homes destroyed. It was a great effort by firefighters.”

Winds persisted Sunday morning, with gusts topping 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.

In Ventura County, firefighters concentrated their forces in the hills above Fillmore, where the wildfire stayed within the containment lines despite the increase in winds. As a result, authorities lifted evacuations in Fillmore, as well as in parts of Carpinteria.

(Sources: Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, Mapzen, OpenStreetMap)

By Sunday evening, the wildfire had grown to 270,000 acres and led 104,607 people to flee their homes, authorities said. More than 8,500 firefighters have battled the blaze, the largest mobilization of fire crews to fight any wildfire in California history. The firefight has cost $123.8 million.

Strong Santa Ana winds helped clear smoke out of Ventura County, but health officials cautioned residents that “non-smoky” conditions don’t mean the air is safe to breathe. The cities of Ojai, Ventura, Oxnard, Santa Paula and Camarillo all recorded unhealthy air quality ratings early Sunday afternoon, according to the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District.

With strong winds threatening to spark more wildfires across the region, Southern California Edison considered turning off power to some parts of Malibu.

Malibu was identified as particularly vulnerable if strong Santa Ana winds continue to batter the region, said Paul Griffo, an Edison spokesman.

Experts say shutting down the power grid in times of extreme winds is a rarely used but effective tactic to prevent wildfires. Until last week, Southern California Edison hadn’t shut down power in response to wind conditions for more than a decade, Griffo said.

But that changed after the fires in California’s wine country in October damaged or destroyed more than 14,000 homes and killed more than 40 people. The company shut off electricity on Dec. 7 to Idyllwild in the San Jacinto Mountains, Griffo said. And San Diego Gas & Electric took similar action last week in rural San Diego County before fires broke out — but there was some criticism of the move because firefighters couldn’t operate electric water pumps.

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Winds are expected to calm down Monday and Tuesday to 10 to 20 mph, which will “look tranquil” compared with the weekend gusts, said Kathy Hoxsie, meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Increased humidity levels and low winds are expected to aid firefighters.

But it will be a short respite, as strong winds and low humidity are expected to return Wednesday in Santa Barbara County and Thursday in Ventura County, Hoxsie said.

Back on Park Hill Lane in Montecito, Behrman scanned a pile of her family’s belongings that were spared by the blaze. Wrapped Christmas gifts, presents from her 1-year-old son’s birthday last week, photographs, strollers and car seats.

“Tons of memorable stuff,” she said, adding that she’s grateful to the firefighters who salvaged some of her things. She planned to load up a car and haul what was saved to her mother’s house in Carpinteria, where she, her husband and three of their kids will stay.

Rusty Smith clears out brush growing near his home after a wind event Saturday kicked up flames and threatened his home in Flores Flats on Gibraltar Road.
Rusty Smith clears out brush growing near his home after a wind event Saturday kicked up flames and threatened his home in Flores Flats on Gibraltar Road. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

In neighboring Santa Barbara, Rusty Smith said he fled his home on Gibraltar Road about 1 a.m. Sunday. He stayed with a friend nearby and set his alarm to wake him every 90 minutes so he could see if the flames had reached his house.

But firefighters managed to save Smith’s house and about two dozen others in the neighborhood.

“I wasn’t worried. You know when things are out of your control,” Smith, 57, said Sunday afternoon, as he swept debris from the driveway of his neighbor’s house. “But we know we were fortunate.”

Lucas Merrick returned Sunday around noon to find that his home also had been spared. As helicopters dropped water on smoldering vegetation, Merrick said his hillside property is much more than a home for him and other residents.

“There’s a spiritual element,” he said. “That’s why people decide to live here.”

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