Powerful winds fan new dangers in Thomas fire: ‘It will be the test to see if we have done everything correct’

Firefighters dig out a hot spot on a hillside while mopping up the Thomas fire along East Mountain Drive in Montecito, Calif., on Wednesday.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

When Tiffany Fariseo returned to her Ventura home a week after the Thomas fire forced her to flee, a power outage had spoiled her food, including two turkeys she had frozen for Christmas dinner.

Money she’d saved to buy loved ones Christmas gifts, she said, instead went to groceries and a $130-per-night hotel stay with her 6-year-old son and five pets during their displacement.

“This really put us behind,” said Fariseo, who works as a caregiver. “When you live paycheck to paycheck, this impacts you a lot harder.”


About 16,000 people in Santa Barbara County still can’t go home. At assistance centers, case managers meet with evacuees one-on-one to help them once they’re allowed to resettle. One center brought in therapy dogs to keep people in good spirits.

Meanwhile, firefighters who have spent more than two weeks trying to control the massive wildfire are optimistic that their days of preparation will keep hot spots from igniting in the face of anticipated powerful winds.

“The wind test is coming” early Thursday, Chris Childers, a battalion chief for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, told residents Wednesday evening at what officials said would be the last community meeting at San Marcos High School. “It will be the test to see if we have done everything correct.”

That included purposefully torching old vegetation to reduce available fuels on the north end of the fire, about 25 miles up Highway 33 outside Ojai. Officials said the Thomas fire has burned 272,000 acres of land and more than 750 homes.

That number of acres charred hasn’t grown for a day, probably because crews haven’t been able to conduct a full assessment of any new burn area, said Capt. Brandon Vaccaro of the California City Fire Department.


“As far as fire activity, we’re not seeing anything new,” Vaccaro said. “We haven’t had anything that’s caused a problem for us.”

If things go as planned, crews hope to start lifting remaining evacuation orders Thursday morning.

For Fariseo, small gestures have given her hope. A woman sold her a Christmas tree for $20, less than half its marked price. She was able to get her food stamp card refilled and secured a $100 Walmart gift card from the Salvation Army to help her buy gifts.

To bring holiday cheer to her home, she had her son and her best friend’s children do arts and crafts. One day, they wrote letters to firefighters.

“We have each other,” she said.

Gino Mallacino left his home in the Santa Barbara foothills three days after the Thomas fire broke out. Since then, he’s bounced around between a hotel and a Red Cross shelter.

As a renter, he doesn’t know what has happened to his home and fears he has lost everything. Mallacino said spending Christmas in a shelter will be fine, but as a retiree who survives on a modest income, he’s worried about what happens after the holiday. He wonders how long the shelter will be open.

“What concerns me is, where we go from there?” he said. “It’s almost impossible to find housing in Santa Barbara in a normal situation.”

A contingent of police officers has been patrolling neighborhoods in and around burn zones, watching for looters. On Tuesday night, they arrested a 32-year-old Lompoc man, Adam Smith, on suspicion of residential burglary after catching him inside a Montecito home.

Last week, authorities arrested Cesar Flores, 31, on suspicion of entering a disaster area, loitering, possession of a burglary tool and using drugs in public after he was seen prowling on private property in an evacuated part of Montecito.

Over the weekend, police officers and firefighters came across a butane honey oil extraction lab in a residence in the hills of Montecito in a mandatory evacuation area.

Santa Cruz reported from Ventura, Tchekmedyian from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Javier Panzar, Michael Livingston and Melissa Etehad contributed to this report. | Twitter: @nicolesantacruz | Twitter: @alenetchek