Thomas fire rages amid longest red flag warning on record

LOS ANGELES — As crews battling the deadly Thomas fire girded for a difficult weekend of firefighting, Los Angeles and Ventura counties ended their 12th consecutive day of red flag fire warnings Friday — the longest sustained period of fire weather warnings on record.

“We put out plenty of red flag warnings, but we haven’t seen them out 12 days in a row. That’s unusual,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Curt Kaplan. “This has been the longest duration event that we have had a red flag warning out without any breaks.”

The current warning is expected to last until 10 a.m. Friday, when winds are predicted to die down quite a bit, Kaplan said. Red flag warnings were instituted by the weather service in 2004 and are intended to alert fire agencies to hot, dry and windy conditions that foster wildfires.

Winds blowing through Southern California continue to be temperamental, posing challenges for firefighters battling the Thomas fire, which claimed the life of apparatus engineer Cory Iverson, 32, on Thursday.

Ten days after the fire began near Thomas Aquinas College, the wildfire has scorched 252,500 acres and is now the fourth-largest since the state began keeping formal records in 1932.

The fire, which straddles the border of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, is so large that its eastern and western fronts are influenced by entirely different wind patterns and terrain. In many ways, it’s as if firefighters are battling two separate fires some 40 miles apart.

The fire grew roughly 3,000 acres overnight, fire officials said Friday. Roughly two-thirds of that growth was north of Ojai in the Rose Valley east of Highway 33, where flames are feeding on chaparral and dead vegetation, said Jude Olivas, a spokesman for the Thomas fire from the Newport Beach Fire Department.

The rest of the fire’s spread was either north, deeper into Los Padres National Forest, or to the west — where it is crawling along canyons near the wealthy enclaves in Summerland, Montecito and Santa Barbara.

Winds are expected to pick up over Montecito by late Friday, with the possibility of 15 to 25 mph winds, with some local gusts of maybe 35 or 40 mph, Kaplan said.

“That could affect the fire,” Kaplan said. “If that happens, that could cause some fire spread.”

Winds are going to shift back to a Santa Ana direction by Saturday night into Sunday, and they are expected to get fairly strong by Sunday morning, Kaplan said.

Los Angeles County and Ventura County mountains could see sustained winds from 20 to 40 mph on Sunday, with gusts up to 55 mph. There could be some isolated gusts up to 60 mph, Kaplan said.

“It’s looking pretty strong,” Kaplan said.

Authorities worry that wind gusts will push the fire south, toward billions of dollars’ worth of property. Because of this, crews from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have worked alongside firefighters from 10 other Western states to scrape containment lines that would serve as a fire break before winds shift Friday night. Streaks of red fire retardant dropped by aircraft or sprayed by tanker trucks line the hillsides as well.

Firefighters also are conducting their own, small controlled burns that destroy fuel for the wildfire. Crews ignite backfires using either a flaming, fuel-filled drip torch or a “stubby” — a pistol that launches flares 20 to 40 feet into the brush. Water tankers and firefighters continually monitor these fires and douse them if they grow too large, Olivas said.

Even when forecasters say the winds will blow south, swirling gusts at lower elevations could drive the blaze in another direction, Olivas said. The lack of uniformity to the winds in the forest north of Santa Barbara is what makes fighting a fire there so difficult, he said.

The Thomas fire has destroyed more than 900 structures in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties since it began Dec. 4 in Santa Paula. In its first day, the fire spread southwest, toward Ventura, and northwest, eventually hugging Ojai before pushing to the Santa Barbara coast.


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