When Santa Ana winds collided with a fire that sparked in Santa Paula — 44 miles from Santa Barbara — on December 4, they gave birth to the largest fire in California history, at least since 1932 when such stats were officially logged in. As of Saturday morning, the Thomas Fire had grown to 273,400 acres, surpassing San Diego’s Cedar Fire of 2003 which had burned across 273,246 acres. (Other fires have burned more homes or caused greater loss of life.) Thomas’s size leapt another 8,000 acres on Christmas Day when incident commanders connected a perimeter line on the fire map that brought total acreage to the current 281,620 with containment at 89 percent.
Of the tens of miles of containment line still to be achieved, all are on the Ventura County side of the fire and all located near the fire’s northern boundaries, near Cherry Creek, Lockwood, and Rose Valley just off Highway 33. Crews that once numbered more than 8,000 are now down to 688. Engines, once up to 1,000, are now down to 14. Of the 688 firefighters, about half are on the fire at any given time.
The crews that had been cutting lines around the fire all week, scraping the earth and mopping up hot spots, are now monitoring a fire that has begun to cool, said Terry Krasko, a U.S. Forest Service spokesperson normally assigned to Ozark-St. Francis National Forest in Arkansas. “They’re on watch to make sure everything is staying how we want it to stay.”
To date 775 single-family residences have been destroyed and another 208 damaged. The vast majority of these were located in Ventura. In Santa Barbara County, 27 homes were destroyed as were 18 outbuildings. Damage has been reported to 23 residential properties and nine outbuildings in Santa Barbara County. Those numbers are not expected to increase unless new damaged or destroyed structures are discovered. Of the acreage burned, most was in Ventura County and more than 181,000 acres in Los Padres Forest.
Firefighters expect the Thomas to be contained well before the January 7 date listed as the official estimate. The total cost remains uncertain but already exceeds $202.5 million. The aftershocks of the Thomas Fire — and hidden costs — will be felt for months and years afterward.
In Santa Barbara County the Department of Behavioral Wellness has dispatched teams of mental-health workers — and opened a fire distress hotline — to help victims and residents cope with the stress of loss, evacuation, and trauma. More immediate is the total loss of the 87-bed Vista del Mar psychiatric hospital in Ventura, one of the few facilities around licensed to accept both juveniles and adults with grave psychiatric issues.
For years, Vista del Mar has functioned as a key safety valve for the County of Santa Barbara, accepting Santa Barbara psychiatric patients who pose a threat either to themselves or others when the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF) is at capacity. The county PHF has only 16 beds, not nearly enough for a county of Santa Barbara’s size. As a result, Vista del Mar has had on average seven or eight county residents at any given time being held on involuntary psychiatric holds at county expense.
Since Vista del Mar burned down, Santa Barbara County has received emergency approval to expand the number of patients it can hold in its own PHF from 16 to 26. Likewise, the PHF in San Luis Obispo County has been given approval to hold five patients more than the 20 for which they are licensed.