Thomas Fire Creeps into Montecito Foothills as Crews Establish Camp at Cachuma

Fire Grows by 3,300 Acres Tuesday, Now at 25 Percent Containment

Members of Arroyo Grande Hotshots, Bend Oregon City firefighters, Santa Lucia Crew Seven and Vandenberg Hotshots working to cut a fire break, up steep terrain in Toro Canyon, welcome some water dropping helicopters after being 'bumped' back down the hill a bit 'into the black' burned area when flames shifted in their direction. (Dec. 12, 2017)
Paul Wellman

[Update, Dec. 13, 11:05 a.m.] Reports that the Thomas Fire has moved into the top of Buena Vista Canyon, just west of Romero Canyon, were confirmed this morning by Public Information Officer Captain Gary Pitney with Santa Barbara City Fire Department. Also, a retardant reloading station has been set up in the San Marcos Foothills of Highway 154 near the Bridge to Nowhere.

First District Supervisor Das Williams said the fire has destroyed eight homes and one outbuilding in the county and damaged one home and two outbuildings.

The Thomas Fire town hall meetings continue daily through Friday, the City of Santa Barbara announced, taking place at 4 p.m. at San Marcos High School’s auditorium, 4750 Hollister Avenue. Sandwich boards displaying fire maps and safety information have been set up around down town at 651 Paseo Nuevo, Stearns Wharf, and the Central Library. The Franklin Center on East Montecito Street also has a kiosk, and one will soon go up at Foodland on the Westside.

[Original Story, Dec. 13, 10:47 a.m.] For those calibrating their early morning Thomas Fire freak-out response according to the stats, Tuesday appeared to have been a relatively good day even though the line drawn in the sand at Toro Canyon didn’t hold. All told, the fire grew by 3,300 acres Tuesday, a relatively modest increase when compared to previous rates of growth the Thomas Fire has exhibited. Containment increased to 25 percent from 20 percent the day before. “The fire didn’t move much last night,” said County Battalion Chief Chris Childers. “It moved a little to the west, but we’ve got a lot of prep lines installed by the houses, and we’re going to continue that today.” Tuesday night winds blew out of the northwest at about 15 miles an hour — though gusting at 30 miles an hour — and they’re expected to keep blowing at that rate until later this afternoon. At that point, the winds will weaken and shift direction, coming in from the south. Humidity remains exceptionally low and temperatures will be high, in the 80s.

The Thomas Fire's perimeter as of Wednesday morning, as it creeps to the south and west, into the foothills of Montecito.

According to Amber Anderson, public information officer for the City of Santa Barbara Fire Department, Tuesday night’s fire activity was less than expected allowing firefighters to “go direct” on the fire above Montecito and Carpinteria. Winds, she said, were light but variable, a condition she said she expects to repeat today. The winds are expected to pick up, however, on Thursday and even more on Friday. Privately some firefighters have expressed surprise and gratitude the winds have backed off when they did, allowing Santa Barbara to dodge a bullet — at least for the time being — of biblical dimension. Even so, yesterday’s combination of wind and smoke — mostly the latter — were sufficiently intense to limit to a few hours the amount of sky-time the fixed-wing aircraft could be deployed. About 30 firefighting helicopters are available today and four fixed-wing.

“I personally went up to the fire so I could put my eyes on it,” said Mike de Ponce of Santa Barbara City Fire. “The winds didn’t really develop as they had the two nights before. The fire didn’t have a significant push. It moved a little in the Romero Canyon area, but it didn’t push as it had in the previous nights.”

According to a public information officer assigned to the Thomas Fire from a Tulare County firefighting operation, the Thomas Fire crept down grade a little last night, bumping up against Highway 192 at a couple of spots but not crossing over. If accurate, Anderson was not aware of it. De Ponce added that he drove the 192 every morning before his shift began, going as far as Cravens Lane, and had seen no signs of fire along the 192.

Water dropping helicopters, held back for most of the day due to poor visibility, give some much needed protection to firefighters working to cut a fire break, up steep terrain in Toro Canyon. (Dec. 12, 2017)
Paul Wellman

In the meantime, Santa Barbara County may now have the biggest fire department in the world, with 7,851 personnel trying to contain and extinguish the Thomas Fire, which started December 4 — nine days ago — in Santa Paula. The Thomas Fire weighed in at 237,500 acres at 6 a.m. Wednesday; that’s up from 234,200 acres the same time Tuesday morning.

The focus today will be establishing perimeter defense lines throughout the Toro Canyon and Montecito neighborhoods north of Highway 192. Direct suppression will take place where possible. Firefighters will also be deployed to improve existing fire breaks along Camino Cielo. Contingency groups will also be deployed to improve fuel breaks at Windy Gap in the foothills. At this point, the strategy is to encourage the fire at the western edge of the Thomas Fire — just above Montecito — to move due west into acreage where the vegetation had been substantially consumed by the Jesusita and Tea fires from nearly 10 years ago.

Expect to see much more camp-building activity at Lake Cachuma, which will emerge as yet another command node. As of Wednesday morning, caterers fed 1,500 people. According to the public information officer there, Wednesday’s prognosis looks pretty good assuming the winds remain as light as they have been. By Friday, however, wind gusts are expected to hit 40 miles an hour. According to Celeste Prescott, public information officer assigned to the Lake Cachuma camp, “I feel for the weather people because it seems like the models they used to see just don’t work anymore. Santa Anas aren’t as predictable, and overall weather patterns have changed drastically from what they’re used to.”

Garth White, with a crew from Bend Oregon City firefighters, works a hose alongside members of Arroyo Grande Hotshots, Santa Lucia Crew Seven and Vandenberg Hotshots working to cut a fire break up steep terrain in Toro Canyon. (Dec. 12, 2017)
Paul Wellman


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