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Santa Barbara firefighters struggle to contain massive blaze with no rain in sight

Sunday - 10/12/2017 17:59
California's biggest wildfire forced evacuations in Faria Beach, a small community on the coast between Ventura and Santa Barbara. (Dec. 8) A
(Photo: Mike Eliason, AP)
(Photo: Mike Eliason, AP)

SAN FRANCISCO — Firefighters battling a massive blaze near Santa Barbara expect to face ongoing difficulties as temperatures are forecast to stay in the low 80s for the first part of the week.

"The thing that is troublesome is that next week we’re supposed to have a dry spell and elevated temperatures. There’s no rain expected in the next seven days,” said Charles Esseling of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fast-moving Thomas fire had scorched 173,000 acres as of Sunday evening. It prompted mandatory evacuation orders in two wealthy oceanside towns near Santa Barbara.

Residents in portions of Carpinteria and Montecito were fleeing as the blaze moved closer to homes, including some owned by celebrities.

The fire, which straddled Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, was 15% contained as of Sunday afternoon, Esseling said.

In this early morning Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 photo released by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, flames are seen behind Carpinteria, Calif. A flare-up on the western edge of Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, as wind-fanned flames churned through canyons and down hillsides toward coastal towns. Crews with help from water-dropping aircraft saved several homes as unpredictable gusts sent the blaze churning deeper into foothill areas northwest of Los Angeles that haven't burned in decades. New evacuations were ordered in Carpinteria, a seaside city in Santa Barbara County that has been under fire threat for days. (Photo: Mike Eliason, AP)

One person died in Ventura County on Saturday, Esseling said. So far, 754 structures have been destroyed and 15,000 are threatened. There are 4,435 fire personnel from 10 states fighting it at an estimated cost of $25 million, he said.

While smaller fires had plagued areas closer to Los Angeles last week, Esseling described the Thomas fire as “the granddaddy of them all.”

More: Shelters swell with more than 1,000 animals displaced by wildfire

The temperature in Montecito was 81 on Sunday, and the National Weather Service predicted temperatures in Santa Barbara to hit 83 on Tuesday.

For comparison, the fires that burned in California's wine country in Napa and Sonomacounties in October consumed about 110,000 acres.

On Sunday the fire cut power to more than 85,000 people because of damage to electrical transmission lines, officials said.

Fighting the fire is difficult because while the winds have calmed down somewhat, they sporadically pick up. Gusts of up to 35 mph have caused the fire to spread erratically. 

"The fire goes in all different directions; we don't know where it's going to come from," Esseling said.

The area is especially at risk because it has not burned since 1932 and there is extremely thick brush built up, which is also very dry because of a lack of winter rains, he said.

Santa Barbara County, which dubs itself "the American Riviera," lies just northwest of Los Angeles. 

The area is popular with star-studded names. Oprah Winfrey owns a home in Montecito, and Ellen DeGeneres and wife Portia de Rossi bought an oceanfront estate for $18.6 million in Carpinteria in October. 

George Lucas, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis also own homes there. It was not known whether any were in residence during the fires.

The area under evacuation expanded three times over the course of ovenight and Sunday morning. More than 88,000 people have fled the fire, and officials estimate the cost of fighting it is at least $25 million.

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department tweeted out photos of homes burning in Carpinteria early Sunday morning and crews fighting a wall of flame advancing on homes at 6 a.m. local time Sunday.


Red flag warnings were in effect Sunday for large swaths of Southern California, from Anaheim in the south up through Los Angeles, Burbank, Oxnard and Santa Barbara. The National Weather Service designation is the highest alert possible for weather conditions that can result in "extreme fire behavior." They include low humidity and strong winds.

Under normal weather conditions winter should be a time of rain in California, but so far it has been largely dry. Gov. Jerry Brown, speaking at the Ventura County Fairgrounds on Saturday, called winter fires "the new normal."

"We're about ready to have firefighting at Christmas. This is very odd and unusual," he said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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