Accessibility links

Breaking News

Southern California's Thomas Fire Now Third Largest in State History 


Firefighters battle the Thomas fire in the hills and canyons outside Montecito, California, Dec. 16, 2017.

A huge wildfire ravaging the area around Los Angeles has now been deemed the third largest in California history, with the damage eclipsing that from a devastating 2013 fire by more than 800 hectares (3 square miles).

Emergency officials say 8,000 firefighters from a dozen states are in California to help battle the blazes, with helicopters and bulldozers to aid in the effort.

The cost of the firefighting operation is estimated at close to $89 million.

Fire officials said Saturday that the Thomas Fire, which started December 4, had now burned nearly 105,000 hectares (400 square miles), leaving a footprint larger than those of some cities. The fire was thought to be 40 percent contained, but fire officials said about 18,000 structures were threatened, and that high winds could kick up new blazes by flinging embers far from the heart of the inferno.

Santa Barbara area

In the mountains near Santa Barbara, winds were gusting up to 64 kilometers an hour (40 mph). More than 1,000 buildings have already burned in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Among the threatened communities was Montecito, the wealthiest city in Santa Barbara County, where the average home price is more than a $1 million and residents include television and movie stars. The area was under evacuation orders, and freeway off-ramps leading to Montecito were closed.

At the Santa Barbara Zoo, which is near the mandatory evacuation zone, employees began preparing the animals for possible evacuation. The zoo is home to more than 100 species, some critically endangered. Other zoos will take the animals for as long as needed.

“Everything is fine right now. The wind has shifted in our favor,” spokesman Dean Noble told The Associated Press. “However, we just don’t want to get caught by something unexpected.”

Mark Brown, an operations section chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told reporters Saturday that the flames would become unstoppable once they took hold on Santa Barbara's parched mountainsides where so-called "sundowner" winds kick them west toward the sea.

Firefighters from Kern County, Calif., work to put out hot spots, Dec. 16, 2017, in Montecito, Calif.
Firefighters from Kern County, Calif., work to put out hot spots, Dec. 16, 2017, in Montecito, Calif.

At the moment, a canyon lies between Montecito and the flames. But Brown said if the flames took hold in the canyon, it would be too dangerous for firefighters to try to intervene.

"When the sundowners surface in that area and fire starts running down slopes, you are not going to stop it. And we are not going to stand in front of it and put firefighters in untenable positions," he told the Los Angeles Times.

The hillsides above the village have been treated with fire retardant, and in some cases brush and trees have been cleared in the hope of starving the fast-moving flames.

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey owns a home in Montecito. On Saturday, she tweeted, "Still praying for our little town. Winds picked up this morning creating a perfect storm of bad for firefighters."

Poor air in L.A.

Meanwhile, life in the Los Angeles area is dry, hot and ashy. While the flames are northwest of the city, smoke hangs in the air across the city, which is situated in a basin and has a long-standing smog problem.

JJ Jackman, a Los Angeles-based project manager for an event-planning company, said the poor air quality had caused breathing problems for a friend who lives on the northwest side of town, near the blazes.

"She sounded like she had a cold," Jackman said in an email after seeing his friend Saturday morning. "Said it was from breathing bad, bad air for the past week. ... I think it's safe to say you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who isn't affected or doesn't know someone affected by this mess."

A firefighter from the California Conservation Crops Alder Camp works to put out wildfire hot spots, Dec. 16, 2017, in Montecito, Calif.
A firefighter from the California Conservation Crops Alder Camp works to put out wildfire hot spots, Dec. 16, 2017, in Montecito, Calif.

An unusually wet winter led to exceptional vegetation growth this year, and and a dry summer turned the lush vegetation into tinder. Seasonal winds, the ones driving the fires, limited the amount of controlled burning that could be done ahead of time.

Red flag warnings — meaning conditions are ideal for the spread of wildfires — are in effect through Sunday for parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, as well as parts of Orange, Riverside and San Bernadino counties, all part of the greater Los Angeles area.

The only upside, residents said, is that the fumes in the air have made for some beautiful sunsets.

Firefighter down

On Thursday, a firefighter was killed battling a large wildfire north of Los Angeles.

California forestry fire chief Ken Pimlott said Cory Iverson, an engineer from San Diego, died while battling the Thomas Fire. Iverson, 32, had been with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection since 2009.

His death was the second blamed on the Thomas Fire. A 70-year-old woman died last week while fleeing the blaze.

With numerous massive fires near San Francisco and Los Angeles, 2017 has been one of the worst wildfire seasons ever in California.

Experts blame global warming, a recent extreme drought and the hot, dry winds that blow down from the California mountains every fall.

California Governor Jerry Brown has warned residents that such devastating fires will be "the new normal" in the state.