With favorable weather conditions, firefighters have been on the attack for the past 48 hours, including backfiring operations such as this one on Thursday behind the Bella Vista water plant in Montecito,
Dave Zaniboni/Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Considering the low humidity and the terrain in the hills above Montecito — steep, craggy, and loaded with boulders and thick chaparral — the fact that firefighters, both on the ground and in the air, have been on the offensive against the Thomas Fire the past couple days is just shy of miraculous.

Crews have cut firebreaks between Bella Vista, East Camino Cielo, and Gibraltar roads and along Cold Springs Creek up toward the ridge, laid thousands of feet of firehose along the breaks and roadways, and posted up at foothill residences threatened by the creeping wildfire that has burned 252,500 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, according to incident commanders this morning. Major staging areas at Westmont College, Manning Park, and the polo fields east of Summerland have been busy with engines and crews regrouping for rest, sustenance, and updated attack plans for their next shift in the mountains.

During the past few days, the lack of any appreciable wind has been the biggest boon to firefighter progression against the blaze, now the fourth largest in California recorded history. That relatively good fortune, however, has been forecasted to change. Developing wind conditions out of the north-northeast could make an unwelcome appearance as early as this afternoon and build through the night toward a steady blow in the 25 mph range with gusts to 30.

Helicopters working the Thomas Fire flying over the Riviera on Thursday (Dec. 14, 2017)
Paul Wellman

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials are “pretty confident” these winds will live up to their forecast, according to Santa Barbara City Fire Department Battalion Chief Mike de Ponce, who was in the Montecito hills today at 5:30 a.m. He said the fire is still actively burning in the eastern portion of San Ysidro Canyon. It has creeped slightly downslope, he added, but not by much. No structures in Montecito have been damaged or destroyed.

Incident commanders have now called in 34 helicopters, according to Amber Anderson, a PIO with Santa Barbara City Fire, adding that today’s conditions are favorable for fixed-wing aircraft, as the higher winds aren’t expected until after dark. “The next 36 hours will be the most telling,” she said. “It could be really really intense or it could be nothing. It just depends. But that’s when we’re going to need people to really prepare.”

Chief de Ponce said he had heard nothing new about lost structures — now at 10 destroyed and 10 damaged in Santa Barbara County, with the total number of lost and damaged fire-wide approaching 1,000 — nor have there been any updates publically on Cory Iverson, 32, the firefighter out of Escondido who died near Fillmore yesterday.


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