Montecito besieged by monster fire: ‘Nobody can fight the wind’

A plume of smoke from the Thomas fire rises behind a home in Montecito.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

As the Thomas fire began to bear down on Montecito on Saturday morning, Darren Caesar was packing up and getting ready to flee for a beachside hotel.

After burning for almost two weeks, the flames had finally arrived in his community, just a few miles north on Cold Springs Road.

The last time he had to evacuate for a fire was the 2008 Tea fire. On Saturday, he stood off the shoulder of Highway 192 next to the Montecito Fire Station and pointed to a row of fire trucks and tankers parked about 50 yards away.


“Look at how many firefighting assets they have. I know what they’re doing. I trust that they can do everything they can to protect the structures,” he said. “But it’s the wind. Nobody can fight the wind.”

It was that kind of a morning in the upscale coastal communities in southern Santa Barbara County. For nearly a week, the monster fire had been making runs at the the towns south of Santa Barbara. Last Sunday, several homes were destroyed when winds pushed the fire into hillside communities.

On Saturday, Montecito was threatened again as the winds picked up in the morning and pushed the flames toward the town, prompting Ceasar to plan his exit and putting firefighters on edge.

An army of firefighters had spent days preparing for the siege and were on the front lines Saturday.

Missoula, Mont., firefighter Matt Kerns said what makes the Thomas fire and others like it in Southern California so difficult to combat is the combination of vegetation, weather conditions and the locations of the homes firefighters are assigned to protect.

“California seems to be at the forefront of the urban-wildland interface, [with] just homes in every nook and cranny,” said Kerns, who first arrived in the state Dec. 6 to battle the Creek fire in the foothills above Sylmar in Los Angeles County.


For days his team has been roaming the narrow residential streets that climb toward the Los Padres National Forest, performing triage on homes in the fire’s path if it hooked south, as it did Saturday morning.

They and hundreds of other crews have assessed which are defensible and which are not and where their water supplies are, if they have one. Kern said he and his Montana crew saved two homes that began to burn Saturday morning off Ashley Lane.

“That right there was pretty good,” he said, streaks of ash and grit staining his skin and gear.

In Montana, the fires are more predictable, he said. It’s mostly tempered forest and grassland there.

Not so with these wealthy California beach enclaves. “The manzanita, the actual fuels, are really oily and volatile,” he said. “We’re trying to wrap our heads around just the fuels that we have here.”