[Update: Friday, 3:15 p.m.] Given the immense size of the Thomas Fire — and its response — the firefighting agencies combatting the blaze have just decided to split into two separate initiatives, one focused on Ventura County and the other on Santa Barbara. Both efforts, however, will remain under the Unified Command of the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire.
It’s not yet clear what the exact mission of the two initiatives will be, but clearly, the Santa Barbara division will be focused on keeping the fire from spreading into Santa Barbara County. To date, the fire has not done so, though there’s been no shortage of smoke crossing county lines.
Friday afternoon saw a dramatic and ominous accumulation of dark, roiling smoke in Santa Barbara, causing much concern and apprehension. According to Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Pat McElroy, the situation was not a case of “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Instead, he said, it was more a case of the smoke getting trapped between two competing weather patterns.
There were the winds coming from the east, driving the smoke toward Santa Barbara County, but much weaker and lighter than in previous days. But in addition, there were winds coming from the north and west, more typical for this time of year. That kept the easterly winds from blowing the smoke out to sea. One of the challenges of fighting a fire this size, McElroy noted, is knowing where the fire is actually burning and which way it’s moving. On Thursday night, a plane equipped with infrared imaging gear provided a much clearer estimation of the fire’s contours. The big fear last night, McElroy added, was that the fire would hook around the backside of Carpinteria and then come rushing down the mountains. That did not happen.
[Original story, Friday 2:20 p.m.]: As plumes of smoke from the Thomas Fire amassed early Friday afternoon, Santa Barbara County was nearly as dark as Ventura. Fire officials attribute this gloom to the quietness of the winds. Without strong gusts pushing the smoke out to sea, it is just pooling and accumulating.
The fire remains 132,000 acres, with 10 percent containment. Temperatures are in the early 70s, and humidity is very low. There are now over 3,500 fire personnel working the Thomas Fire, up from about 2,500 just 24 hours ago.
Andrew Madsen, public information officer for the Thomas Fire, said firefighters now have a 747, most likely working the line between the blaze and the Santa Barbara County boundary. A 747 can drop about 19,200 gallons of retardant at a time. The jumbo jet makes the standard DC-10, which can drop about 11,000 gallons at once, look teeny in comparison. “We’d rather have the fire pushed back into the Los Padres back-40 than coming to town,” he said.
Madsen added that much of the national forest would likely close later today or tomorrow. So far, 40,000 acres of the forest have been involved.
According to the National Weather Service fire weather forecast as of Friday, 9:30 a.m., Santa Ana conditions are expected to persist through Sunday. Friday was the weakest day for winds, but gusts will increase Saturday-Sunday into the 40-50 mph range. Very low humidity in the range of 5-10 percent is expected next week; the nighttime increase in humidity might not rise above 30 percent.
In Santa Barbara, east winds have abated for now but are expected to increase over the weekend. Red-flag conditions are possible. In Ventura’s coastal and inland valleys, a red-flag warning is in effect now through Sunday at 8 p.m.