On Sunday, Southern California’s largest and most destructive wildfire expanded in size and swept into new areas, as the wind-whipped flames forced thousands of more residents to evacuate.
The powerful blaze broke out on the western edge of the Thomas Fire sparked new evacuations as the fire sent up a giant smoke near Montecito, Carpinteria and seaside areas in Santa Barbara County about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles that had been under fire risk for days and were now choked with smoke.
“The winds are kind of squirrely right now,” said Mike Eliason, the Santa Barbara County fire spokesman. “Some places the smoke is going straight up in the air, and others it’s blowing sideways. Depends on what canyon we’re in.”
Fire crews, with the help of a fleet of water-dropping planes and helicopters, tried to save homes as unpredictable explosions sent the blaze deeper into residential foothill areas and into unoccupied sections of Los Padres National Forest, where the state’s fourth-largest fire burned a decade ago.
The out-of-control blaze grew by more than 50,000 acres on Sunday and scorched 230,000 acres in total, making it the 5th largest wildfire in modern California history, according to The Los Angeles Times.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA’S THOMAS FIRE IN THE LIST OF THE MOST DESTRUCTIVE BLAZES IN THE STATE
Thousands of homes and businesses in Santa Barbara County were without power. Overall, the fires have destroyed about 800 homes and other buildings, killed dozens of horses and forced more than 200,000 people to flee since Dec. 4. So far, one death, a 70-year-old woman who crashed her car on an evacuation route, is attributed to the fire in Santa Paula, a small city where the fire began.
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.
A few miles to the west, the Santa Barbara Zoo was closed to the public. Workers there gave shelter to the zoo’s 500 animals.
Firefighters made significant progress Saturday on other fronts of the enormous fire that started Dec. 4 in neighboring Ventura County. As containment increased on other major blazes in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties, resources from those fires were diverted to the Santa Barbara foothills.
Forecasters said Santa Ana winds that whipped fires across the region last week would continue in some areas at least through Monday.
A lack of rain has officials on edge statewide because of parched conditions and no end in sight to the typical fire season.
“This is the new normal,” Gov. Jerry Brown warned Saturday after surveying damage from the deadly Ventura fire. “We are about ready to have firefighting at Christmas. This is very odd and unusual.”
SANTA ANA WINDS: WHAT ARE THEY?
Last week, the fire swept through the San Luis Rey Training Facility, which killed more than 40 elite thoroughbreds and destroyed more than 100 homes — most of them in a retirement community. Three people were burned trying to escape the fire that continued to erupt Sunday.
Most of last week’s fires were in places that burned in the past, including one in the ritzy Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air that burned six homes and another in the city’s rugged foothills above the community of Sylmar and in Santa Paula.