Thomas Fire in Southern California Explodes in Size

Reinvigorated by Santa Ana gusts and canyons of bone-dry vegetation, the Thomas fire surged into the Santa Barbara County foothills Sunday, forcing evacuations in the coastal communities of Carpinteria and Montecito.

As the blaze spread westward into the mountains, it grew the blaze to at least 230,000 acres, putting it in the top five of California’s largest modern fires and creating new challenges for the exhausted crews in their sixth full day of battling it.

With the northern and eastern fronts of the fire moving mainly into uninhabited areas of the Los Padres National Forest, fire officials concentrated Sunday on protecting the beach city of Carpinteria and Montecito, the wealthy enclave to its west.

Throughout the day, the fire moved down the mountains north of Carpinteria into foothills several miles from its downtown. The flames chewed rapidly through hillsides thick with vegetation.

“The fuels in there are thick and they’re dead so they’re very receptive to fire,” said Steve Swindle, spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.

The blaze, which had already destroyed more than 750 buildings, leveled six more in Carpinteria, said Ray Navarro, chief of the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire District. As of Sunday evening, the blaze was about four miles from Montecito.

As the fire moved, people in the foothills near Carpinteria and Montecito were ordered to leave immediately and fire officials urged all residents to begin preparing to evacuate.

Retired LAUSD teacher May Osher, 66, packed photo albums and pet supplies into her car Sunday afternoon, but said she didn’t plan to leave her Carpinteria neighborhood unless ordered to by police.

“I’m staying until it’s time to go,”Osher said.

Fire officials identified dry creek beds as a particular hazard. If the blaze moved into the arroyos, officials warned, it could create a chimney-like effect that would send flames exploding down the creek path and into undefended terrain.

Winds that had gusted to 50 mph overnight weakened Sunday afternoon, allowing helicopters to drop water on fires in the foothills. Lower down, bulldozers sliced fire breaks in the heavy brush.

“Contingency strike teams” were dispatched throughout Carpinteria in case the blaze manages to cross fire lines, said Newport Beach firefighter Jude Olivas, a spokesman for the Thomas fire response.

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SOURCE: LA Times, Melissa Etehad, Ruben Vives, Harriet Ryan, and Alene Tchekmedyian