Thomas Fire is Now Second Largest Wildfire in Modern California History

After a brief respite from the relentless gusts that have driven the deadly Thomas fire for more than two weeks, powerful winds are expected to return, adding to the challenges facing firefighters working to contain the mammoth blaze.

The fire, which began near Santa Paula in the foothills above Thomas Aquinas College on Dec. 4, has burned through 272,000 acres as of Tuesday evening, making it the second-largest wildfire in modern California history.

On Tuesday, the Thomas fire surpassed the lightning-sparked Rush fire, which burned 271,911 acres in Lassen County in 2012.

The Thomas fire was 50 percent contained, and fire officials do not anticipate full containment until Jan. 8, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Firefighters have tried to take advantage of weaker winds Monday and that were forecast for Tuesday. The Ventura County Fire Department on Tuesday morning reported “another productive day” Monday, but with shifting winds on the mountaintops.

Forecasters predict a new blast of Santa Barbara’s notorious sundowner winds, which blow down the canyons to the coast, late Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning. The winds could create crucial fire conditions for the western side of the blaze in southern Santa Barbara County.

Northerly gusts will likely exceed 40 mph, with isolated gusts of up to 60 mph possible, according to the National Weather Service.

The Santa Barbara County side of the fire will be affected by the strong winds first, on Wednesday afternoon and evening. Winds will then pick up on the Ventura County side Wednesday night and Thursday morning, said Joe Sirard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

While winds pick up in Ventura County, they will decrease in Santa Barbara County, he said.

“It is a very large fire, so you’re going to have different wind effects over different parts of the fire,” Sirard said.

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SOURCE: Los Angeles Times, Nicole Santa Cruz and Hailey Branson-Potts