California wildfire 3rd largest in state history, threatening Montecito

By Allen Cone  |  Updated Dec. 16, 2017 at 5:59 PM
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Dec. 16 (UPI) -- The Thomas Fire, now the third largest fire in California's recorded history, is only 40 percent contained in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and is bearing down on mansions in Montecito.

Firefighters are bracing for the blaze to strengthen because strong Santa Ana winds are pushing south from the mountains down to the coast, with forecasted gusts reaching up to 40 mph. The winds are removing moisture and no rain is forecast.

Evacuation orders were expanded in and around Montecito and Summerland. The northbound 101 Freeway into Santa Barbara was closed to traffic.

"When the sundowners surface in that area and the fire starts running down slopes, you are not going to stop it," Mark Brown, an operations section chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told reporters at a Saturday morning news briefing. "And we are not going to stand in front of it and put firefighters in untenable situations."

The fire, which started on Dec. 4, has burned 256,000 square acres northwest of Los Angeles, according to Cal Fire, and has the potential to become the biggest fire ever in California since recording began in 1932. No. 1 is the 2003 Cedar Fire, which killed 15 people and burned just over 273,000 acres in San Diego. No. 2 in California is the Rush Fire in the northern portion of the state at 271,911 acres in 2012. But the fire also burned in Nevada for a total of 315,577 acres.

A total of 8,370 firefighters, 32 helicopters and 77 bulldozers were working the blaze Saturday morning. Two people have been killed in the fire, which has also destroyed 1,009 structures, damaged 240 structures and threatens 18,000 more.

If the winds run south down the canyon toward Montecito, "we won't stop the spread," Brown said.

Hundreds of homes are in the fire's potential path, and Brown said it too dangerous to put firefighters in front of it to stop it. They would instead watch it from designated "safety zones" and then attack it from behind.

Te enclave includes mansions of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and many other celebrities.

Winfrey expressed her dismay on her Twitter account. "Still praying for our little town. Winds picked up this morning creating a perfect storm of bad for firefighters," Winfrey tweeted.

It was not clear if Winfrey was in Montecito.

Martin Johnson, a division chief with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said "If you are in an evacuation order area, I am asking you to please heed that order. If you're in one of the warning areas ... be ready to go at a moment's notice. This is a significant event and we want everybody to be ready."

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