More than a week after the Thomas fire ignited in Ventura County, destroying hundreds of homes and displacing thousands as it grew into a massive inferno, firefighters are now in a race to protect the pristine coastal communities of neighboring Santa Barbara County before a shift in powerful winds forecast for this weekend.
Across the mountain ridges above Santa Barbara, Summerland and Montecito, firefighters Wednesday were building containment lines, clearing brush, digging breaks and setting small backfires to burn fuel, all in an effort to create barriers to stop the forward march of the fire.
Conditions so far this week have been favorable, allowing firefighters to attack the flames on the southwestern flank of the blaze as it moves west toward the Santa Ynez Mountains.
But the National Weather Service was forecasting sundowner winds blowing southeast at up to 35 mph Friday night, followed by Santa Ana winds Saturday that, at up to 45 mph, could steer the fire toward the southwest.
“When the wind starts pushing it, we can throw everything we have at it and it’s not going to do any good,” Mark Brown, an operations section chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told Santa Barbara residents Wednesday night.
The stakes are high. If the fire moves into Santa Barbara and Montecito, nearly a quarter million residents and 62,000 structures worth $46 billion would be at risk.
As firefighters well know, sundowner winds are notoriously unpredictable. The winds occur when hot air from the Santa Ynez Valley rises and swiftly pours over the mountain passes toward the Pacific Ocean, as if a person pressed a thumb over the end of a hose.
“It creates very erratic wind conditions, which are very difficult to predict and very difficult to fight fire in,” said Capt. Brendan Ripley, a fire behavior analyst with the Ventura County Fire Department. “It moves fire in different directions. It changes throughout the day.”
If crews can’t finish the containment line across a roughly six-mile stretch in the mountains fast enough to stop the fire’s march west, firefighters may have to burn the fuel themselves — a risky proposition and a scary sight for residents.
“It’s a proactive approach to fight the fire on our terms instead of on Mother Nature’s terms,” Brown said. “It’s well-coordinated if we do it. We’ve had numerous subject-matter experts put the plan together. It’s been vetted at all levels. All the local authorities have looked at it and approved it.”
Fire officials stressed that this plan would be used only if the weekend wind events occur as predicted and if crews can’t make a stand and fight the fire directly. The controlled blaze would burn up to 4,000 acres and be started when winds are favorable for firefighters.
About 600 fire engines are jammed into the narrow, winding roads in the Santa Barbara County foothills. Trucks are spraying retardant on grassy hillsides and firefighters are wrapping small, indefensible buildings in protective metallic sheeting that looks like tinfoil to reduce the chances they ignite.
As smoke cleared and visibility improved, a conga line of low-flying helicopters started arriving at a county park in Santa Barbara off Highway 154 to pick up fire retardant. Officials said 33 helicopters and eight airplanes were dropping water and retardant on the blaze.
As of Wednesday night, the Thomas fire had burned more than 238,000 acres and was 30% contained. It has destroyed more than 900 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties since it began Dec. 4 near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula. In its first day, the fire spread southwest, toward Ventura, and northwest, eventually hugging Ojai before pushing to the Central Coast.
With containment lines now protecting Ventura and Santa Paula, firefighters there have been on a “seek and destroy” mission for any lingering hot spots that could threaten avocado groves, fire officials said Wednesday.
“This fire is a beast and you’re gonna kill it,” Martin Johnson, Santa Barbara County fire division chief, told fire crews at a morning briefing. “I have no doubt."
Authorities said it will probably take months for fire officials to determine the cause of the Thomas fire.