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Living hour by hour as the Thomas fire approaches Montecito

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Dan Bellaart and his wife, Mary McEwen, comfort each other in the backyard of their home on Toro Canyon Road in Montecito, as the Thomas fire burns in the background.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Charles McCaleb hasn’t slept much since the raging Thomas fire chased him out of his Ojai Valley home about a week ago.

In the early morning hours, he refreshes fire and weather websites for the latest on the blaze’s behavior and spread. During the day, he volunteers, doling out masks to evacuees from behind a table off Highway 192 in Montecito.

His voice is gravelly from days of exposure to toxic air, his nerves rattled by the seemingly endless firefight.

“It’s not like ‘someone pointing a gun at you’ scared,” said McCaleb, 70. “It’s more of a controlled fright where you know what’s happening.”

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Anxiety was high for residents of Santa Barbara County, where the Thomas fire, driven by gusty winds and bone-dry air, rampaged over the weekend, destroying more homes, forcing tens of thousands more people to flee and threatening the coastal enclaves that are a defining feature of California’s landscape.

The spread of the flames slowed Monday as winds calmed and the fire reached areas that had burned about a decade ago, reducing the available fuel. The blaze grew by only about 1,000 acres, compared with the more than 50,000 Sunday, when it chewed through steep slopes and canyons that haven’t burned for decades. By Monday evening, firefighters had the massive wildfire 20% contained.

“It’s a good sign,” Ventura County Fire Engineer Steve Swindle said of the 231,700-acre fire’s slower growth. “It gives us some hope.”

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A map of the Thomas fire.
(Los Angeles Times )

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Firefighters were focusing efforts on keeping flames from damaging hillside homes in Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria. The fire is burning above those towns, along a ridgetop in the Santa Ynez mountains.

Authorities said Monday night that the fire was “flanking,” or moving slowly side to side along the ridgeline. But forecasters fear so-called sundowner winds could pour over the ridgetop from the interior valley and blow the fire down the hill into coastal neighborhoods.

A gray haze hung over Montecito, where stores and gas stations in the evacuation zone north of Highway 192 were closed and only a scattering of residents stayed behind. Fire crews went door-to-door looking for holdouts and water sources, such as homes with pools or wells they could draw from should the Thomas fire bear down on the city. Others watched for flying embers that could ignite spot fires.

Roger Raines, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and his platoon were assessing the vulnerability of about 50 multimillion-dollar Montecito estates connected by a tangle of narrow, winding tree-lined roads barely wide enough for the trucks assigned to protect them. Residents who fled left their front gates wide open for easy access.

Raines sat in his truck at Park Lane and East Mountain Drive, just outside the open field his team had designated as a safety zone to regroup should things turn for the worst. Their success would depend on the wind, which forecasters said could gust downhill at up to 25 mph after dark.

His crew was new to the Thomas fire, but they had been fighting flames for a week — first in Bel-Air, where the Skirball fire scorched more than 400 acres, then Murrieta, battling the smaller Liberty fire.

“This is our first shift here,” he said. “But we’ve been running for a week.”

Just two months ago, Raines was in Napa County fighting the devastating wine country fires that claimed more than 40 lives.

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“It’s December,” Raines said. “This doesn’t happen in December.”

Some 20 miles west, as the Thomas fire closed in on Carpinteria, dozens of people crowded an evacuation center opened at UC Santa Barbara. Men, women and children had been trickling in since 2:30 a.m. They slept in cots sprinkled across the university gym floor. A father played pingpong with his son nearby.

Meanwhile, ash and silence blanketed the beach community of Summerland. The quaint eateries, coffee shops and wine shops along Lillie Drive were closed or empty. Residents walked their dogs and checked the daily fire map posted on a board outside the fire station.

Up along State Route 192, Laurent Pellerin wore a surgical mask as he packed his red Audi station wagon with winter clothes and snow chains.

The 48-year-old home decor store manager was getting ready to drive his family to Chicago for a new job when the fire closed in on his cottage near Toro Canyon over the weekend. Now they are leaving, unsure if their home will survive after they go.

“It is surreal,” he said. “We are leaving the fires and rushing to get the snow chains for winter.”

About 7,000 firefighters from 11 western states have poured into Ventura and Santa Barbara counties to try to contain the Thomas fire. Firefighting efforts have cost about $48 million.

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In the last week, helicopter crews alone have dumped 1.7 million gallons of water on the blaze. That’s enough water to fill roughly 70 backyard pools.

While Monday’s slow growth left firefighters hopeful, a red flag warning, indicating extreme fire danger, was extended in the region.

“Our vigilance in this is still equally as high,” Ventura County Fire’s Swindle said.

Serna and Panzar reported from Montecito, Tchekmedyian from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

javier.panzar@latimes.com

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