Thomas Fire Spreads Into Santa Barbara County

The San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito, Calif., faced the encroaching Thomas Fire on Saturday. The blaze spread quickly in the morning, fueled by strong winds.
Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department, via Associated Press

The largest of the Southern California wildfires accelerated its spread into Santa Barbara County on Saturday, burning through the outskirts of the wealthy enclave of Montecito, home to many Hollywood stars.

The fire, which is now the third largest in modern California history, was being driven by strong winds that were forecast to continue through Saturday. Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for large swaths of the county, including Montecito and some parts of the city of Santa Barbara. Downtown Santa Barbara remained under voluntary evacuation, though officials urged residents to leave.

Firefighters who had been trying to stop the progression of the blaze, known as the Thomas Fire, by removing brush, clearing land with bulldozers and dropping thousands of gallons of fire retardant from aircraft were forced to retreat Saturday as the fire advanced. Hundreds of homes are in the fire’s path.

In addition to its pricey real estate, Santa Barbara County is home to a $1.5 billion agricultural industry that produces strawberries, fresh-cut flowers and leafy greens.

“It’s moving faster than what we can possibly do to contain the fire,” said Joe Rosa, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

In Santa Barbara, helicopters hovered in gray and smoky skies, and ashes speckled the ground everywhere, said Bonnie Marcus, who lives in an apartment in the eastern part of the city.

“I have never been in a war zone but that is what it felt like,” Ms. Marcus said.

Her phone kept buzzing with alerts about the fire, she said. Most of the residents of her apartment complex had evacuated.

By late afternoon, she was on the road to a friend’s house near San Diego with some personal pictures, work files and clothes stashed in a bag.

More than 8,000 firefighters have been deployed and hundreds had been ordered into a tactical retreat. “We are not going to put them in harm’s way to defend a building and have the chance of them not going home to their families at the end of this event,” Mr. Rosa said.

One firefighter, Cory Iverson, 32, died Thursday from burns and smoke inhalation, according to autopsy results announced Saturday.

As of Saturday evening the fire had burned through at least 267,500 acres and was 40 percent contained. Cal Fire has records of fires dating to 1932; the largest, the Cedar Fire in San Diego County in October 2003, burned 273,246 acres.

Winds that had been gusting up to 65 miles per hour in the hills of Montecito were less severe by the afternoon, but were still blowing strongly toward the coast, said Tom Fisher, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard, a few dozen miles southeast of the fire.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Miriam Jordan and Thomas Fuller