Firefighters wrestle to control California wildfire

Ben Gruber, Reuters

Posted at Dec 13 2017 05:37 AM

Firefighters attack the Thomas Fire's north flank with backfires as they continue to fight a massive wildfire north of Los Angeles, near Ojai , California. Gene Blevins, Reuters

CARPINTERIA - One of the biggest wildfires in California's history grew on Tuesday as relentless wind gusts and bone-dry weather challenged firefighters seeking to gain control of the blaze.

The conflagration, known as the Thomas Fire, has burned 234,200 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties about 100 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, and grew by about 2,500 acres overnight, according to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) on Tuesday.

It ranks as the fifth-largest wildfire in the state's history, and hazardous weather was expected to persist through the week.

"Severe fire weather will continue to promote significant fire growth further into Santa Barbara County, threatening the communities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Montecito and Summerland," Cal Fire said in a statement.

In Carpinteria on Tuesday morning, Michelle Warner, who has lived in the Pacific seaside town her whole life, spent as little time as she could outside, even though she and her toddler son wore face masks to protect them from the smoke that blanketed the area.

Thanks to the firefighters' efforts, Warner, a 45-year-old writer, said she had no plans to evacuate despite the heavy smoke that cut visibility to about 50 feet on what would have otherwise been a sunny day.

"We plan to stick it out for at least another day, hoping that conditions will get better," she said through her face mask before going into a grocery store. "I just worry about the health of my kids."

Strong wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour (65 km per hour) and extremely low humidity expected through Thursday will pose a challenge to firefighters, the National Weather Service said Monday evening.

Gusty offshore winds will continue to threaten structures in Ventura County and surrounding areas as well as the communication infrastructure, which could affect public safety, such as cellular services, according to Cal Fire.

Nearly 7,000 firefighters were battling the Thomas Fire, which has destroyed almost 900 structures including more than 690 homes, Cal Fire said. The inferno, which threatens about 18,000 structures, was 20 percent contained by Tuesday morning.

Efforts to combat the wildfire, which has displaced more than 94,000 people, have cost more than $48 million to date.

Dry vegetation that has not burned in 50 years has acted as fuel for the fire in the mountains southeast of Santa Barbara and northwest of Ventura counties, Cal Fire spokesman Ian McDonald said.

"Because the slopes are so steep and the terrain is so rocky, it is actually quite dangerous," he said. "We are not going to put firefighters in harm's way halfway up a steep rocky slope. We are going to wait for the fire to come to us and extinguish it where it is safe."

Public schools in Santa Barbara and school districts nearby have canceled classes this week and will not reopen until the annual winter break is completed in January, officials said.

Some of the other fires burning over the past week in San Diego and Los Angeles counties have been largely brought under control by the thousands of firefighters on the ground.