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Thomas Fire, 5th-Largest In Modern California History, Shows Few Signs Of Slowing

In a photo released by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters knock down flames advancing on homes atop Shepherd Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif., on Sunday.
Mike Eliason
In a photo released by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters knock down flames advancing on homes atop Shepherd Mesa Road in Carpinteria, Calif., on Sunday.

Updated 10:40 p.m. ET

Firefighters in California's Ventura and Santa Barbara counties find themselves still locked in a desperate struggle with what has become the fifth-largest wildfire in modern state history. The Thomas Fire, which for a time Sunday was ratcheted down just 10 percent contained, has ticked back upward to 20 percent containment.

Late Monday, CalFire reported, "Gusty Santa Ana winds will continue to push fire to the west. Very high fuel loading, critically low fuel moistures, above average temperatures and single-digit relative humidities will support fire growth on the west and north sides of the Thomas Fire."

All told, the fire covers a span of more than 231,000 acres — tens of thousands of acres larger than all of New York City combined. More than 1,000 homes and other structures have been either damaged or destroyed. The cost of the fire has reached $48.6 million, according to fire officials, and with roughly 18,000 more structures threatened, that cost is likely to increase.

The news surrounding the smaller fires currently raging elsewhere in Southern California offered a significantly more positive outlook. Authorities say the Skirball, Creek, Rye and Lilacfires all are more than 80 percent contained, and some — like the Creek — are inching closer to full containment. The Liberty Fire that has been burning in Riverside County has been fully contained.

More than 6900 firefighters are now engaged in battling the Thomas Fire, which is roughly a week old at this point.

The blaze is threatening Central Coast areas of Carpinteria, Summerland, Montecito and Santa Barbara — some of which haven't 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. The wind isn't the only culprit, said Steve Swindle, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department. There is thick dry brush that hasn't burned in decades.

"The fuels in there are thick and they're dead, so they're very receptive to fire," Swindle said, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times.

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 said during a Sunday evening news conference, according to Reuters.

About 5,000 residents were under evacuation orders in the area, and 15,000 homes were threatened.

The University of California, Santa Barbara, has rescheduled its final exams for after the new year and has delayed the start of its winter quarter, citing deteriorating air quality and power outages.

"We deeply regret the stress that this has caused," the university's chancellor and senior administrators said in a letter to students, "not just for those on campus, but also for our families here in California, across the country, and for some around the world."

In the meantime, firefighters are redoubling their efforts in the region.

"A lot of these guys have fought a lot of fires in the past few months and are fatigued," Fire Capt. Steve Concialdi, spokesman for the Thomas Fire, told Reuters.

There was a little good news as evacuation orders for large parts of the city of Ventura have been rescinded, according to a Cal Fire tweet. But "the public is reminded to stay vigilant," says the message.

Gov. Jerry Brown warned on Saturday that the wildfire is not a freak incident. The long-running drought in California that has quite literally added fuel to the fire has extended wildfire 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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.
Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.

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