The largest and most destructive of the wildfires in California continued to burn its way up the coast on Sunday, becoming the fifth-largest in the state’s history and sparking new evacuations in towns as far north as Santa Barbara.
By late Sunday afternoon, the Thomas Fire had destroyed 790 homes and other structures and left 90,000 homes and businesses without electricity. It has grown to about 230,000 acres – or 360 square miles. The fire is spreading so rapidly that containment on Sunday was downgraded from 15 percent to just 10 percent.
More than 4,000 firefighters were engaged in the effort to contain the flames. Although the Thomas Fire is still raging, most of the smaller fires are being gradually brought under control, officials said.
Jonathan Bastian of member station KCRW says that strong and unpredictable winds have kept fire crews scrambling to stay ahead of the Thomas Fire. Crews were using water-dropping planes and helicopters to battle the fires.
“The air quality remains so bad that schools and colleges have canceled classes,” Jonathan reports. “In downtown Santa Barbara, a layer of white ash has descended over a city famous for its pristine beaches.”
Chris Harvey of Cal Fire, says he is hopeful that the high winds could die down soon, giving firefighters the upper hand.
“They’re expected to die down a little bit moving into Tuesday and Wednesday,” he says. “So, we’re hoping for a break from the wind.”
Sunday brought mandatory evacuations for the Central Coast areas of Carpinteria, Summerland, Montecito and Santa Barbara – some of which have not been affected by wildfires in decades.
The biggest concern is for Carpinteria, where the fire was moving west above the city in an area of very dry vegetation that hasn’t burned in about 100 years, Steve Swindle, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department was quoted by The Los Angeles Times as saying.
The Associated Press reports that officials “handed out masks to residents who stayed behind in Montecito, the wealthy hillside enclave that’s home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges and Rob Lowe.”
“This is a menacing fire, certainly, but we have a lot of people working very diligently to bring it under control,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told an evening news conference, according to Reuters.
About 5,000 residents were under evacuation orders in the area and 15,000 homes were threatened.
KPCC reports that University of California, Santa Barbara, announced Sunday afternoon that it would postpone final exams due to the fires.
In an email to students from Chancellor Henry T. Yang, he said the campus would remain open, but he encouraged all students who want to leave to do so.
Gov. Jerry Brown warned on Saturday that the long-running drought in California that has quite literally added fuel to the fire, had extended fire season.
“This is the new normal,” Brown said as he surveyed damage from the Thomas Fire. “We’re about ready to have firefighting at Christmas. This is very odd and unusual.”