After a welcome lull in powerful winds that drove Southern California’s massive wildfire, crews braced for the return of potentially dangerous gusts that could revive the flames.
Firefighters used two days of calm conditions to build containment lines and set controlled fires to clear dry brush ahead of so-called sundowner winds expected to whip up Wednesday afternoon.
“We are still on guard,” fire information officer Rudy Evenson said. “It’s been a very unpredictable fire and we just don’t know what these winds are going to do.”
The blaze that’s burned for more than two weeks northwest of Los Angeles is 60 percent contained and now the second-largest in California history. Officials said the new winds could cause it to grow into the state’s biggest fire ever.
More evacuations were lifted Tuesday, but communities remain threatened in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Those who fled the flames feared they might not have homes to go back to.
“My husband has the feeling, ’Why aren’t they letting us back in?’” said 82-year-old Curry Sawyer, whose Christmas tree is up still waiting for their grandkids to decorate it after she and her husband Ray had to evacuate from their home in Santa Barbara two weeks ago. “But they’ve got hot spots up there and if we get more Santa Ana winds, we’re going to be back to square one. I’m not sure we’re out of the woods.”
The devastating fire that began Dec. 4 has destroyed at least 750 homes.
Even if their beloved home of five decades survives the next onslaught of winds, the Sawyers are preparing for Christmas in yet another hotel.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Curry Sawyer said from her hotel in Goleta on Tuesday.
The Sawyers’ gifts for their family are hidden away in closets waiting to be wrapped, the ingredients for gingerbread men are sitting in cupboards, and the kindling for the fireplace has been chopped.
They were planning a big family Christmas with their sons, who each are married and have a daughter, and live in Los Angeles and Amherst, Massachusetts.
If their home doesn’t make it, or if a mandatory evacuation remains in place come Christmas, Sawyer said the family will make do in Los Angeles. Her son’s home can accommodate her other son’s family, but Sawyer and her husband would have to stay in a hotel.
“We’ll be more just trying to cramp ourselves into a small space,” she said. “But at least we’ll be together.”
As of Tuesday, 432 people were still staying at evacuation shelters run by the Red Cross, agency spokeswoman Georgia Duncan said.
The shelters are preparing to stay open for Christmas and many agencies are donating toys so that the children there have presents to open.
One company already donated more than 100 bicycles, mostly for children. And Christmas came early for one 5-year-old boy who was handed a Mickey Mouse doll.
“He just grabbed it and cried because he had lost all of his toys and just thought there would be no Christmas,” Duncan said. “To him, yesterday was Christmas.”
Marolyn Romero-Sim, her husband and their 9-year-old daughter have been at an evacuation shelter in Ventura for two weeks after they watched their home of four years, an RV, burn in the wildfire, along with their beloved dog, their Christmas tree and a few presents.
The family is trying to save money for another RV but know they’ll probably be in the shelter for Christmas.
“I try not to let my daughter know, but I feel horrible,” the 34-year-old Romero-Sim said through tears Tuesday. “She’s being so understanding. She’s just thankful we’re going to be together for Christmas.”
The Thomas Fire is responsible for two deaths and has burned about 425 square miles (1,100 square kilometers), making it the second-largest in the state since accurate records were kept starting in 1932.