The third-largest wildfire in California history continues to grow and threaten thousands of homes despite armies of fire crews and fleets of bulldozers and aircraft.
Although Santa Ana winds eased on Friday amid the blaze northwest of Los Angeles, they are expected to return with a vengeance over the weekend. And the fire is so large that winds on one end may be gustier than those on the other side.
The 11-day-old Thomas Fire surging through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties had devoured some 400 square miles of brush and timber and burned more than 1,000 buildings, including well over 750 homes.
Another 18,000 buildings are still in jeopardy, including mansions in the wealthy enclave of Montecito.
Officials say the massive wildfire has burned 259,000 acres and that the flames are only 40 percent contained, despite efforts by some 8,000 firefighters, 32 helicopters and 78 bulldozers.
Firefighting costs were approaching $89 million.
Another focus of firefighting was on the eastern flank in canyons where a state firefighter was killed Thursday near the agricultural town of Fillmore. Officials have released no details on the death of 32-year-old Cory Iverson.
The National Weather Service forecast extreme fire danger or “red flag” conditions through at least Saturday evening, with winds gusting to 40 mph in the Santa Barbara County mountains where the fire is burning. Firefighters were facing first northerly “sundowner” winds through the night that could turn into northeasterly Santa Ana winds, driving the flames in another direction.
Jim Welsh did last-minute work on his home in Santa Barbara. He spent the past week clearing out his gutter in case the Thomas Fire moved in his direction. He had this ladder on standby.
“Just in case I have to get on the roof for some reason,” Welch said.
Over the past week, fire crews have been driving up and down area streets to get familiar with them. A number of engines are parked on standby in case anything flares up. Crews don’t want to see a repeat of the Tea Fire that destroyed more than 200 homes in the Montecito and Santa Barbara more than nine years ago.
Santa Barbara has had only a tiny amount of rain since October 1, the start of the new water year, and is more than 3 inches below normal to date.