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Thomas fire continues to grow as strong, shifting winds bring new dangers

An aircraft makes a water drop over a hot spot up in the mountain range at Gibraltar Rock on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017 near Montecito, Calif. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The massive Thomas fire continued to grow Sunday even after an epic battle to protect homes along the Santa Barbara County coast Saturday proved successful despite intense winds.

The third-largest wildfire in modern California history was burning a massive swath from Santa Barbara to Ventura, fueled by intense Santa Ana winds. On Sunday morning, the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles was being hit by wind gusts topping 70 mph in some mountain areas. The National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for canyon and mountain areas.

As of Sunday morning, the fire was at 269,000 acres and 40 percent contained. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said 18,000 structures were threatened.

Fire crews were expected to shift their focus from Santa Barbara to Ventura County, where the northern edge of the fire was moving east and red flag conditions are expected to remain in place until Sunday night, officials said. Winds could gust up to 55 mph.

In Ventura County, firefighters were concentrating their forces in the hills above Fillmore where the wildfire continues to burn. Their efforts were hampered by dry conditions combined with low humidity and strong winds.

Red flag conditions were forecast in the mountains and valleys of Los Angeles County through Sunday evening as well as parts of Ventura, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

On Sunday morning, wind gusts topped 70 mph in mountain areas in the fire zone and 50 mph on the coast in Ventura County, said Kathy Hoxsie, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Winds are expected to calm down Monday and Tuesday to 10 to 20 mph, which will “look tranquil” compared with the weekend gusts, Hoxsie said.

Those calmer conditions should allow firefighters to focus on more defensive work such as bulldozing fire lines and dropping fire retardant. The humidity levels should also increase during the early part of the week — another help for fire crews, Hoxsie said.

But it will be a short respite, as strong winds and low humidity are expected to return on Wednesday in Santa Barbara County and Thursday in Ventura County, Hoxsie said.

In advance of the weekend flare-up, firefighters had smothered portions of the Santa Barbara County hills with hundreds of thousands of gallons of fire retardant to keep embers from igniting spot fires. Some hillsides were intentionally denuded above Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria, including in Romero and Toro canyons, to limit the potential damage.

Fire officials said that 8,300 fire personnel have been mobilized to fight the Thomas fire — the largest mobilization of fire crews to fight any wildfire in California history. Firefighting costs so far stand at $110 million.

Santa Barbara County Fire Division Chief Martin Johnson told reporters Saturday night that the aggressive prevention measures had paid off. Hundreds of homes were spared.

“Earlier this evening I was asked the question, ‘How many structures did we lose today?’ ” Johnson said. “That’s the wrong question to ask. The question to ask is, how many did we save today?”

As the winds began to die down in Santa Barbara early Sunday, fire officials said they were going to take advantage of the moment and extinguish smoldering hot spots in the Montecito area.

Not all homes were spared. On Sunday morning, a multimillion-dollar house on Park Hill Lane in the Montecito hills was still burning. From the outside, the Spanish-style structure appeared intact, but the interior was almost completely gutted.

All that remained was smoldering ash.

Despite the loss or damage of some homes in the Montecito hills, fire officials emphasized that more homes were saved than lost.

“This is the worst fire condition I’ve seen in the last 32 years,” said Capt. Dave Zaniboni, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “It could have been a lot worse. We could have easily lost firefighters or had more homes destroyed. It was a great effort by firefighters.”

Orange County Battalion Chief Mike Summers huddled with his team of firefighters gathered in the parking lot of Cold Springs Elementary School to discuss the day’s plans. The fire had reached into the backyards of some homes on Saturday, and officials wanted to make sure that they were no longer threatened.

He said his crews would be patrolling along Coyote Road to clean up any hot spots.

Despite the long hours, Summers said his team is in good spirits and well-rested. He’s been on the fire for about a week and expects to work through Christmas.

“Many of the firefighters have kids and families waiting at home,” he said. “But we are here for the community. Our first priority is the community, and then our second is family waiting back home.”

Humboldt firefighter Jake Illiam, who was among the crews working in Montecito, said he was also missing his family. He said his daughter will turn 1 this week.

“Today was her birthday party,” he said.

By Saturday afternoon, Santa Barbara County appeared to be in recovery mode as evacuation orders were lifted for areas around Carpinteria.

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© 2017 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.